Down By Garden by Leo V.

Down By Garden
Leo V.

Sylvie trotted down the cobblestone path, balancing the basket on his arm. The night breeze grew stronger and he pulled the large blanket closer to him. He turned to Arlene, who followed beside him, and smiled.

“Never too cold for a picnic,” he said, turning his chin up high. Arlene matched his grin and jabbed her thumb towards her chest.

“Never for the two of us!” Sylvie laughed and readjusted his grip on the heavy blanket. “Are you sure you don’t want me to carry something?” She held out a gloved hand.

“No, no, I got it. Besides, we’re nearly there.” He nodded his head towards the bridge at the end of the path. It was an old wooden thing, with splotches of red and purple from when Arlene had suggested the two of them paint it. It didn’t take long for them to realize that they hadn’t brought enough paint, so they added color at random.

When they reached the bridge, Arlene stopped at the edge, staring towards the stream. Sylvie had already begun crossing, taking a few steps before he noticed. He turned and followed her gaze. “Oh, no, it’s okay. The stream has frozen over. See?” He pointed down as best he could towards the layer of shining ice beneath the bridge. “No need to worry.”

“Alright, if you say so.” Arlene took a careful step onto the bridge, her lips stiff. After a moment, her smile return and she and Sylvie made their way across.

The bridge lead down to the garden. Arlene’s mother was the one had nurtured it, since she was a little girl. But in the past few years she hadn’t had the strength to come down. Sylvie decided he’d take it upon himself to maintain it, once he took the time to learn anything about gardening.

Luckily, despite Ms. Greene’s lack of work and Sylvie’s lack of knowledge, one group of flowers were blooming to greet the two when they arrived: the avalanche lilies. Their yellow petals curled above the thin layer of snow, reaching towards the starry night sky. Sylvie set the basket down and began stretching out the blanket.

“I always did like these flowers,” Arlene said, crouching down to brush her fingers across the tops of them. Snowflakes trickled off, sparkling slightly in the moonlight.

“That’s why it’s the best spot.” He finished securing the blanket and sat down in the center. He patted the spot beside him, and Arlene took it. Sylvie reached for the basket. “Do you want your food?”

“I think I’m okay for now.”

“Suit yourself.” Sylvie took his peanut butter and jelly out from its wrapping and took a bite. He looked at Arlene. Her copper hair stood out against the purple and white. It reminded Sylvie of fire; he was always warm around her. He hoped she was warm enough around him.

They sat their quietly. Looking out for the field of white, and over the hill to the twinkling lights of the rest of the town below. Sylvie finished his sandwich and scooted closer to Arlene, so their knees were touching. “Are you warm enough?” he asked, a tickle in his throat. She nodded. “I’m sorry.” He looked down at the flowers. Arlene stared ahead.

“It’s okay.”

 

Ms. Green pulled her coat around her tight, tucking her chin down as she walked from the porch steps onto the stone. The snow was light, but enough for her to follow the one set of foot-prints towards the garden. She hadn’t been down this way in years, but Sylvie’s mother couldn’t think of any other place he could be.

When she reached the bridge, she had to take a second. The sloppy brush strokes and random splatters created a tightness in her chest. She hugged her waist and rushed across.

It didn’t take long for her to spot him, sitting on a blanket in front of the lilies. She stopped, far away enough for him not to notice. He turned to his left and spoke into the air. His head turned back to the flowers and she began to cry.


Leo is a sophomore majoring in English with plans to teach at the high school level. Assuming, his writing career doesn’t take off, that is.

God don’t give no one any more than they can bear by S.E. Joyce

God don’t give no one any more than they can bear
S.E. Joyce


It was 10 A.M. on a Sunday in King’s Watch and nobody knew why the train stopped dead on the train tracks ten miles short of the station.

It was midway through the second morning service. The choir had just finished belting their hymnals and Pastor John was introducing the Story of Job when the screeching started, the earsplitting whine of metal on metal.

The building, a mere 632 feet from the tracks, shook with reckless fury. Stained glass slivers wavered in their once firm holdings, the loosest pieces falling to the ground in a crashing clatter. The church bell tolled in the bell tower and the wooden cross hung above the pulpit fell to the ground and split clean down the middle.

The God-fearing congregation braced themselves in their pews. The Ladies grasped the arms of their men as if they were liable to float away, their white-gloved hands trembling in anticipation of all the dirt they would soon be able to dish. Oh, how they loved a bit of drama—loved flipping through intercepted letters intended for mistresses; loved turning the pages of the latest and greatest romance novel, the kind filled with scandal, sex, and secrecy hidden behind unassuming covers with unassuming titles; loved talking about the latest divorce, engagement, or affair. But this, this was new, a fresh drama they could breathe in like air and spew out all over town like an oppressive smog, making everybody else cough themselves dizzy.

Outside, the brakes, squealing like pinned hogs, screamed to a halt.

The train never stopped there. There was no station in King’s Watch; there was no need for one. No one ever came, and no one ever left.  They prided themselves on that.

So, the engine coming finally to a stop outside could mean only one thing: Something was wrong.

With a tired breath, the train’s momentum gave way to gravity, allowing silence to supplant its screaming resistance. But, within an instant, this silence was superseded by a new sound more miserly and vulgar than the last. The Ladies of the congregation let loose their squawking shrieks, the humblebrag of birds begging the world to marvel at the glory of their mere existence. The children cried, the women soothed, and the men leapt to their feet, seizing the opportunity as their moment to be valiant martyrs so they could, at last, know fame.

At the back of the chapel, the town loon fell to his knees, unkempt hair falling over his face as he cried into his hands. “Lord, forgive me. I have sinned,” he said through stuttered sobs. “Take me home. Oh, Lord, please.”

One of the men turned around, the needlessness of his valiancy realized in the apparent calm that had returned to the world around them. He slammed a beloafered foot into the loon’s side. “Get off your knees, fool. It’s a train, not the damn Second Comin’.”

“Don’t speak like that in the house of the Lord, James,” the man’s wife said, a feigned look of surprise spreading across her face as if she were not thinking the same thing.

The whole congregation was in shock. They just couldn’t believe the horror of it all. But it was the nature of the town to find the Lord’s blessings in the most depraved of happenings. Thus, the Ladies were all glad of one thing: at least that girl hadn’t come to church that day.

A few Sundays prior, during the Easter service no less, that girl had come to the church. Alone, unannounced, and utterly underdressed, she walked in a quarter past ten, fifteen minutes late. The doors slammed shut behind her and the entire congregation turned to glimpse the spectacle. The Ladies sat aghast, exchanging glances from beneath their feathered hats like a murder of crows eyeing a trapped mouse. She took a seat on the back pew—the sinner’s bench—and cracked open her worn leather bible.

“Why is she here?” the Ladies all wondered in unison. Sure, the sign outside said, ‘Everyone is Welcome,’ but that didn’t mean everybody. “Maybe we should change the sign…” the Ladies would suggest to one another later in hushed voices. “We can’t have people like that just waltzing in. We’ll have to start dry cleaning the pew cushions.”

Peering out over fish hook noses, throwing stones with gravestone eyes, the Ladies assessed the intruder.

“I swear that dress wasn’t even past her knees,” they would say. “Ankles out for the world to see… looking like the Whore of Babylon, I tell you… We can’t have the children seeing … Oh, think of the children….”

The following Sunday, the Ladies gathered round a card table with the preacher’s wife, pouring grape juice into tiny plastic cups for communion. Silenced with anticipation, the Ladies looked back and forth to one another, begging each other to speak the thoughts everyone was having. The oldest Lady cleared her throat, “Dearest Petunia, do tell us that Pastor John talked to that poor girl last week.” Her lips pursed into a bind, cracking deep lines into her lipsticked lips.

Petunia hung her head, hushing her voice to a solemn rustle, “He did.”

“Oh, do tell us.” said the boldest Lady, “We’ve all be praying, of course. But the praying don’t work if you don’t know what you’re praying for.” She looked around for support, wagging her head up and down like a doted dog.

And Petunia told them. She told them about the demons in the girl’s brain. That she said she felt just like Job, forsaken and afflicted, asking God to dig down deep in his pockets for any blessings he has left– the scoured scraps, anything at all. But her hands had come up empty. For months, she had tried to swallow her death each morning, bright blue pills with a Dixie cup of tap water, but nevertheless, she emerged and relaxed, and emerged and relaxed, and emerged and relaxed. That she had reached out for help, but no one ever tells you that people caring about your grief has an expiration date.

“What do you say to a girl like that? So far gone.” the oldest Lady chimed.

“John told me he looked at her, looked at her dead in the eyes, and told her the truth. He said, “God don’t give no one more than they can bear.”

“Mmmmm,” the Ladies said in unison, shaking their head up and down like jostled bobbleheads, as if this was some groundbreaking philosophical manifesto.

“And then what happened? What did she say?” one Lady probed.

“Disrespectful bitch didn’t say nothing. Just walked out. Don’t know where she went. Probably gonna do away with herself.”

“Well, if she does it’s for the best.” said the oldest Lady, “God helps those who help themselves. Besides, there’s nothing we can do. No one can change what He has destined.”


It was 10 A.M. on a Sunday in King’s Watch and nobody knew why the train stopped dead on the train tracks ten miles short of the station.


 

S. E. Joyce is a junior at UNCG majoring in English and minoring in Biology.

A Sparkle In Time by Cindy Xinru Yan

A sparkle in time
Cindy Xinru Yan

     1977 was an important year of Chinese history. Beloved chairman Mao passed away a year before, and the demise of the Gang of Four ended the most painful history of the Culture revolution. “This country changed every day and night,” the newspaper told people. I was a 12-year-old girl, and 1977 was just a regular year for me. Those changes did put more insecure looks on my parents’ faces, but people’s life didn’t change a lot. We still lived in a room no bigger than a dove cage. I might have exaggerated a little, but that was how I felt. I didn’t know how to call this place because it was neither a house nor an apartment. Two small rooms and a tiny living room were the entire living space for five people in my family. We did have a small storage room in the yard, which was the place mother stored all the food for winter. I avoided to go in there because the freezing air and thick darkness in that closed space took all the air from my chest. Me and grandma stayed in the smaller room, my parents slept with my younger brother, Ming, who was only 3 years old. Every night I fell asleep listening to grandmother’s gentle snoring. The wall was old and covered with yellow water spots. When I stared at those shades of spots under the moon light, they looked like tiny people. The fear and curiosity went away when I turned to my grandmother’s side and held her tight.

   One morning I woke up early, the entire world was still dark and quiet. The sound of snow falling from the roof was loud and clear. I heard mother and father’s argument regardless if I wanted to or not. Carefully crawling over sleeping grandma, I put on my heavy winter coat and pushed the door open slightly.

  “If you still care about this family you wouldn’t buy those useless things! Do you think we are rich enough to be generous to random people?” Mother tried to lower her voice but failed. The shakiness and long pauses meant there were tears in her eyes.

  “The old man doesn’t have a place to stay if he doesn’t sell those matches. Lunar New Year is coming after all.” Father, clearing his throat, sound defeated.

“Those matches were wet! I thought you are a smart man Dr. Li! I can’t believe we live in this condition as a doctor’s family! I didn’t become a nurse to pay for your medical school to live this kind of life!” Mother was crying now.

Father grabbed his coat and stormed outside. I huddled back under my blanked as fast as I could to avoid seeing mother cry. Those yellow tiny people on the wall stood there peacefully; they looked down at me and my life in this tiny space. Pulling the blanket over my head, I needed to stop thinking about why I lived so poor as a daughter of a doctor and a nurse. Grandma always told me that my father was a decent man, but I wasn’t sure. Everyone said Dr. Li was the kindest man they ever met. When patients couldn’t afford their medicine, they came to Dr. Li because he let them borrow money or even gave their medicine for free. When our neighbors didn’t have money to buy food or pay for their kids’ school, they knew they could rely on him. However, as a father, he couldn’t pay for hardly anything Ming and I wanted. It made me feel sorry for him when he lowered his head to avoid looking in my eyes. However, I wanted to believe in him because he was my grandmother’s son. My mother used to say that the best thing my father ever did to this family is letting grandma stay with us. I couldn’t agree more. The life without her is unimaginable. Who’s going to wake me up every moving and prepare me for school? Who’s going to make toys with color papers for Ming and me? Who’s going to comfort the whole family when my parents had a fight? My mother was busy enough with her job as a nurse, and father barely came home for dinner because he always worked late in the hospital. Luckily, grandma was always there for us.  

 

*****************

I was the first one running out the classroom after the teacher dismissed the class. Chilly wind swiped through narrow streets and blew down some branches. I felt like a bird flying in the wind. When I was running through the freezing wind, I didn’t have to think about the fight, the small living space and my mother’s tears. There were probably not enough winds to blow all my troubles away. I raised my head and took a deep breath. It was not worth to get a cold for running in the wind, so I decided to go home.

Before I reached door, I was surprised to see my whole family standing next to the storage room. Ming jumped out of mother’s arms and ran to me.

“June! Look what daddy got us for the New Year!” he said. His little face blushed with excitement.

I couldn’t believe what I saw. The cold, small room which used to be filled with cabbages and potatoes now looked like a palace of foods. A bag of pork ribs hung in the corner of the room. Oranges and apples were shining on the shelf. I felt saliva forming. The last time we had pork was months before, and I almost forgot what fresh fruits tasted like. Some decorations for Lunar New Year were on the shelf. The color of bright red and gold brought the new year atmosphere into the room. My father took a box from the shelf and handed to me. Smiling, he seemed shy, and gently encouraged me to open it up. It was a beautiful red box decorated with golden flower patterns. I took it with my both hands, it was heavier than I thought. No matter what was inside I wanted to save the box for my toys. Ming couldn’t wait and opened it with his little hands. At least 20 pieces of traditional pastries were placed closely in that box. I didn’t know foods can be that pretty. Some of them were pineapple cakes shaped like bunnies and sunflowers. I could smell the sweet and sour pineapple jam inside of the pastries. Taro buns have golden and fluffy crust with crispy beaked almond on top. The one in the middle was shaped like a lotus. The pink petals were made by many layers of crispy pastries. I was sure that the flower heart contained soft, sweet red beans. It was even looked better than a real lotus! Before I reached out my hand to take one, mother closed the box. I immediately knew that we needed to save the pastries for the New Year.

My father looked at my mother and said, “Today I picked up my paycheck and brought something for the Lunar New Year. I felt sorry for my kids because they had not eaten tasty food for months. I spend money on everyone else, but not them. They deserve a better life. At least I can give them a happy new year.” he picked up my little brother and placed one hand on my shoulder. Mother laid the box on the shelf carefully, and closed the door behind her. Her face was brightened up by a gentle smile.

“I will cook those foods with grandma. We will have a great Luna New Year like your father said,” mother said warmly, slightly leaned on my father’s shoulder. My family had some fruit after dinner. Meat, pastry, and other food were saved for new year just like I predicted. My father even drank some wine with mother on the dinner table. They talked and laughed like they never fought. Suddenly, a thought stroke me, “only money and fancy food can bring peace and joy to this family.” I was terrified by my own thought. Biting my lips, I forced myself to stop thinking.

The happiest person on the table was my grandma. She sat quietly, cut an apple in small pieces, and placed them on everyone’s plates.

“Anyone want more apples? I can get it in the storage room,” grandma said. When she mentioned the storage room, she looked at my father. Her eyes were filled with satisfaction. I didn’t pay much attention to what they were talking about because the lotus shaped pastry was the only thing I could think about. Looking out from the window, I could only see the shape of that storage room. I wanted to go in that room again but outside was freezing with snow falling heavily.

    I went to bed early at that night, wishing to weak up early next morning so that I could spend more time in the storage room.

**************

“What should we do now? We have to call the police to find the thief!”

“You lost your mind. Polices would not come here for some lost food!”

Waking up by sounds of a fight again, I couldn’t open my eyes because of the bright light streaming through the window. I reached out my hand to grandma’s side of the bed. It was cold and empty. When I ran into the yard in my pajamas, I couldn’t feel the cold at all. The storage room was wide open like an empty black hole. Some carrots and half bag of flour lay on the ground. Pieces of red paper which used to be new year decorations were still hanged on the broken shelf. Some neighbors stood in front of their doors, scratched their necks and stared at our empty storage room.

“What a shame! Now everyone knew we have no food for the New Year!” my mother’s voice shaken because of the anger and shame.

I saw my classmate stood with his mother. When my eyes met with his, he walked towards me. His mother genteelly grabbed his hand.

“We all feel sorry for June’s family, but you’d better not go. There is nothing you can do, and what if they asked to borrow some foods from us?” the mother lowered her voice but I heard her clearly. They walked inside and closed the door.

Burning tears rolled down from my cheeks; everything was blurred but I knew grandma was comforting Ming. I could still hear my mother yelled at my father.

I lost the lotus flower, and my parents were fighting again. Looking into the empty storage room, it was nothing there to make the family happy again. My heart ached when I thought about it. Suddenly I fell into an embrace; it was my father. I could feel his chain bone when I leaned my head on his chest. I didn’t realize my father became that thin. Without looking at his face, I knew he wasn’t crying or shaking. His steady heart beats calmed me down, and my tears stopped.

“We are going to figure something out before the Lunar New Year,” my mother looked at me. “Don’t you worry about it.” Like the most of Chinese mother, she refused to show her volubility in front of her children.   

“Go and help your mother. I need to go to the hospital,” my father told me.

I knew exactly what my mother meant by “figure something out,” Every time she said that, she went to borrow money from Mrs. Yang, the old lady lived next to us. I didn’t like Mrs.Yang at all even she regarded my father as a savior of her family. My father operated her son for free when they had no money. The son recovered well and became a director of the largest factory in the province. Woman in neighborhood said that Mrs. Yang was an ignorant barbarian, and all the money she had didn’t buy any class for her. I didn’t know what that means, but every time she talked, it sounded like she was yelling. When children accidently walked in her yard, she yelled at them so loud that the whole neighborhood could hear the high-pitched voice. Children in the neighborhood called her an old witch. However, she only showed her hospitality to my mother, which didn’t make it easier for my mother to talk about borrowing money.

I looked my mother fixed her hair again and again before she left. Looking into the mirror, her face twisted slightly as if she ate something sour. Quickly rubbing a little bit of lipsticks on her lips, she blended it with her finger. The scarlet color made her face less pale. She took out her nicest dress from the closet, it was a light brown winter dress she brought two years ago. The way she pulled the zipper up reminded me of a warrior putting on an armor. My mother barely dressed up. For some reason, she seemed sad every time when she put on nice clothes and make ups. Chinese people always said woman look like lotus flowers when they dressed up, but my mother looked like a warrior with sadness in her eyes. I took a deep breath, held her hand, and followed her. She looked surprised, and told me to stay at home. “I don’t want you to go alone.” I said. She gave me a pale smile, held my hand tight, and knocked on Mrs. Yang’s door.

“Mrs. Li! What brought you here? Please come in!” the old lady wore a silk robe with tiger pattern on it. She invited my mother and I into her house.

The living room was two times bigger than ours. A large soft leather sofa shined under sun light. Before my mother said anything, she started to talk about her son brought a new refrigerator for her as a new year present. Words came out of her mouth like bullet shoot out the gun. My mother was not capable of stopping the bullets.

“Mrs. Yang, I have to tell you something” my mother finally got a chance to speak.

“If it’s about the money you borrowed from me before, don’t worry about returning it today! Just return it whenever you are ready, probably after the Luna New Year?” Mrs. Li poured more tea in my mother’s cup.

The awkward smile on mother’s face made my heart shrink. Mrs. Yang kept talking while my mother sat on the couch anxiously. When she finally paused, we said goodbye to her and readied to leave.

“I hope you staying longer, Mrs. Li, I always love to talk to you.” Mrs. Yang said. She went to kitchen and took out a basket. “I roasted some sweet potatoes, please bring it with you.” She handed the basket to my direction without looking at me.

My mother sighed after Mrs. Li closed the door behind her. We walked home silently. My mother held my hand tight, it started to hurt. I said nothing and kept leaning close to her. I was so mad at Mrs. Yang but I was also tired and hungry, so I took a sweet potato from the basket. There was a red envelope on the bottom of the basket.

Mother picked up the envelop and opened it. I saw a stack of cash and a hand-written note, it says “Happy Luna New Year”. It was Mrs. Yang’s hand writing because she was the only one in the neighborhood who spelled “Lunar New Year” wrong. My mother smiled, carefully put the cash back to the envelop.

“Neighbors told that me I shouldn’t be friends with Mrs. Yang. Guess who’s wrong,” Mother said while she walked fast towards home. I could tell how happy she was by her steeps.

 

*********************

Delightful smell of food rose from kitchen; my little brother ran in there excitingly every few minutes. Mother used the money in envelop for new year shopping. We got all the meat and vegetables, but the box of pastry was already sold out. I felt guilty for my disappointment. Luckily, everyone was busy so no one noticed that. It was too late to buy decorations. My grandma picked the red paper from ground and asked me to draw something on it.

“I have a better idea.” I told her, pointing at a box of wet fire matches my father brought.

I painted all the fire matches with gold paint and used glue to attach them with the red paper. I put the matches into a shape of “福”, which means luck and fortune. I wish I can light those matches. Imaging those sparkles of fire made up the character 福, I felt extremely satisfied. After hung the whole thing on the wall, Grandma sat on the bed and made papercuts used the rest of red paper.

“June, this is for you,” Grandma put a red lotus shaped papercut in my hand.

I looked around, Mother was cooking in the kitchen, her eyes were red because of the smoke. Ming sat on the floor played with matches I left. Holding the lotus tight, I felt that I was not a child anymore. The pastry box wasn’t for me because I was no longer the child that carving for pastry. I still wanted delicious foods, but the happiness of whole family meant more to me at that moment. My father came in, shut snow and wind behind the door. His hair and shoulders were coved by snow. Taking off the heavy black coat, he took out a box of firework. I poured a cup of tea and handed it to him. He took the tea, looked surprised.

“I saw the old man who sold me matches. He gave me this box of firework to thank me for helping him. I checked it this time, the fireworks were good,” father said.

“Daddy is the best!” Ming ran to him.

I smiled, placed the box of firework on the table and took my father’s coat. People said they enter the adult’s world at the age of eighteen, but for me it was on the Lunar New Year of 1977. At that moment, I knew the time when people really became stronger was when they made sacrifice because of love. My mother was strong, and so did my father. I didn’t know what will happened to my life after 1977, but I knew I will always remember this new year. The decoration which I made by matches stacked in my mind. If I can light it, those sparkles will made up the character that means lucky. The Lunar New Year of 1977 was like a little sparkle in time, tiny but bright, my heart was brightened every time I thought about it.


Cindy(Xinru)Yan is a junior student in UNCG, born and raised in Shanxi, China. She majored in Chinese literature before she came to North Carolina.She attended UNCG since 2016.

Sunshine and Rain by Brianna Joyce

Sunshine and Rain
Brianna Joyce

Rain, rain, go away. Come again another day. That’s what all the children say. At least, the other children. But not Maggie. Quiet Maggie welcomes the rain. Throughout her school life, she was known for sitting in the rain for hours. If she had the opportunity, she would stand or sit in the rain for hours, unmoving, motionless. The drops would soak through her clothes, but she wouldn’t shiver. She’s seen too much to be cold. It all happened in the midst of WW1. Her family was packing for the evacuation. Only they were too late.

***

“We should have left ages ago. They could be on their way right now.” Maggie’s mother huffed, as she tried to clear her jewelry box of anything valuable.

“We’re going to be fine, just hurry and grab the emergency money while I go start the car.” Said her father, quickly rushing outside.

Her mother had just finished packing their valuables and was now fishing for the money. As she did this, Maggie watched from the doorway, not truly comprehending why they were leaving. But she knew it wasn’t good because her mother wasn’t smiling. She gripped her red coat nervously.

“Mommy where are we going?” Maggie asked quietly from the door. Her mother stopped and knelt down in front of her. She took her daughter’s face in her cold slender hands and kissed her gently on the nose.

“We’re going to be leaving for a little while love.” She gave a reassuring smile.

“Will I ever see my room again?” asked the little girl somberly.

“If we can get this war over with. Now did you pack your thi-”

“Polgari! Sutrender!”

“What was that?” asked Maggie.

Her mother slipped out the door and a few seconds later, scooped the child into her arms. She was in tears as she just saw two Hungarian soldiers holding a gun to her husband. She ran towards the nearest window and quickly opened it up. She kissed her daughter and held her tight.

“Mommy what’s going on?” Maggie whimpered.

“I just want you to know that I love you very much and that you are my sunshine.” Her mother answered in tears, trying to keep her voice steady.

“Is daddy okay?”

“Everything is going to be fine. I just want you to listen to me very carefully. Whatever you do, don’t stop running. Even when you think you’re tired, don’t stop until you reach Hawlington, that town we normally walkthrough. Remember?”

Maggie stayed quiet.

“Tell me you remember.” Her mother pressed her head to hers.

“I remember mommy.” Maggie answered.

Even with the shouting, it felt quiet.  The sky was clear and the sun shined through the dimly lit room. Without realizing it, her mother began to hum You are My Sunshine.” Maggie felt a little better until the soldiers kicked down the door, startling them both. Her mother kissed her goodbye one more time and started hoisting her out the window.

“Whatever you do, don’t look back now run!” her mother ordered, and Maggie did. Maggie ran as fast as she could, and when she heard the gun shots behind her, she knew her family was dead.

But she didn’t stop. She kept going. She ran towards the town only to find it abandoned by life and infested with war. The shockwave from the explosions made her stumble. She fell on the cobblestone path in front of the old candy shop her father would take her to after school. Behind her, a tank rumbled close by.

Maggie tried to move, but fear kept her down. She turned her head to see it stop in front of her just a few feet away. The barrel was pointed straight towards her. She held her breath and shut her eyes tight. She let the tears fall as she watched what little of her life flash before her eyes. five years was not that long, not that much. She thought she could hear her mother’s voice singing.

You are my sunshine.’

A fire roared in the distance from a bomb drop.

My only sunshine.’

The sound of shouting was mixed with anger and fear.

You make me happy.’

Smoke clouded the skies, suffocating the sunlight.

When skies are gray.’

She could hear them loading the shell.

‘You’ll never know dear.’

Behind her another shell landed, deafening her ears.

‘How much I love you.’

She prayed to God one more time.

‘Please don’t take.’

The gases and fumes burned her eyes and nose as she started to fade.

‘My sunshine.’

Goodbye she told herself.

‘Away.’

 

A pair of wings enveloped her waist and soon she was pulled from danger. She opened her eyes to see a pair of blue ones staring down at her. She couldn’t hear what he was saying, but it wouldn’t matter as he was strapping a gas mask to her face. She took small deep breaths and was coming back to consciousness. Through the foggy lens, she could see his own fear. Terror more likely.

“Everything will be alright love. Just hold on tight.” He spoke quickly. “Can you nod your head yes?” he propped her head in his hand, trying to keep her awake. She slowly nodded, and he smiled. “Very good.”

***

Bianco, looked around, held her tight and ran from cover to cover. Separated from his squad, he was trying to regroup when he finds a little girl on her knees in front of a tank. “Nothing is ever easy.” He muttered in frustration.

There were two enemies to his left, so he quickly turned right into a small alley way and slipped behind some wooden boxes catch his breath. The little girl raised her head as the youthful man was praying to God for some form of safety. He looked down at her and saw big brown eyes through the mud stained glass. His name patch was covered in blood.

“It’s okay, everything is going to be okay.” He said, gently bouncing her on his hip.  She nodded then screamed as an enemy charged toward them with a bayonet.

The soldier pulled a pistol out and shot a round through the enemies skull before the blade reached them both.

He hit the ground and Bianco shook. He pulled the little girl tighter to him. “We have to move.” He breathed. She couldn’t hear as her ears were still ringing. Bianco put a hand over the back of her head, hoping a sniper’s bullet wouldn’t fight its way to her precious head, and started running again.

They ran past everything. Char, debris, bodies, good and evil depending on which side you were on. Maggie kept her head buried in his shoulder as he sped along. A shot rang out, narrowly missing the back of Bianco’s head.

“Shit!” he vexed. He took cover in a broken down home, and surveyed the area. He took off her mask letting her breathe easier. He then found a closet with piles of clothes and sat her down. He took out one of his pistols and gave it to her.

“Listen very carefully.” He stressed, lightly cocking it. “Pull the trigger, if anyone is not me. If you hear shouting, or they don’t speak English, pull the trigger. And that’s only if they try to open the door. Do you understand?” asked Bianco. He looked over his shoulder to make sure no one heard. The little girl nodded, wrapping her small hands around the weapon. “Alright, good.” He smiled. He watched the tears fall from her eyes and wiped them away with his thumb.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Maggie.” She whispered.

“Well Maggie, My name is Bianco, and I promise I will keep you safe. And if I don’t,” his nerves shook as he heard footsteps nearby, “Please forgive me.” He gave a reassuring smile. He kissed her forehead before he shut the closet door and climbed up the decrepit stairs. He reached a room with four windows and kept his body low to the ground. His plan was to find the easiest route out of town. If they could make it to the woods where his team had dispatched, they would both be in good hands. He peeked through each window, finding that two rights and a left would put them on the path to safety.

***

Maggie held her breath with each creaking sound. She tried to hold back tears as she kept the gun aimed at the door. It was heavy but she refused to let it fall. After a few moments of silence she jumped as a pair of boots marched in. she peeked through a small hole in the closet door and with bright brown eyes, spotted a Hungarian soldier. Maggie froze as he stepped closer to the door.

***

Bianco carefully went back down only to quietly fall back into cover. He peeked over out to see the Hungarian officer reaching for the closet door, his gun ready. If he fired his own gun, it could alert other soldiers. If Maggie shot the same could happen, but that could buy them time.

The officer opened the door and Bianco’s heart leapt only to settle when nothing happened. A shot somewhere off in the distance was heard and like a distracted dog, the officer left to investigate. When all was clear, Bianco rushed down to the closet. He opened the door and it was empty except for the pile of clothes tucked in the corner.

“Maggie.” He whispered, checking behind him. It was quiet until he saw a piece of brown curl sticking out under the clothes. He called her name again and she poked her head out of the clothes. She climbed out and ran into his arms.

Bianco picked up his companion and held her tight. “Oh thank God.” He breathed kissing her head.

“I’m sorry,” she began to cry. “I couldn’t shoot the man.” She nuzzled her face into his shoulder.

“Shh, it’s okay.” He said softly. “You did the right thing now let’s get out of here.” He said.

They followed the path with caution. Bianco could hear shouting in the distance and picked up the pace. The clouds and smog hung heavy in the sky, with no light to break through the dark. They were almost to friendly territory when Maggie saw an enemy behind them in the distance.

She shouted as he took aim. Bianco looked back but it was too late. A blast was made and a bullet lodged itself right in the back of the soldier’s leg making him and Maggie both of them drop to the ground.

Maggie’s heart pounded as Bianco took out the pistol, but the blood from the wound was making him lose consciousness.  Maggie crawled over and shook him, but he was becoming more and more unresponsive. The enemy drew closer and she didn’t know what else to do.

She took Bianco’s pistol and just like he showed her, cocked the hammer back. When the enemy reached them she shut her eyes as she aimed the gun and squeezed the trigger as hard as she could. The recoil was heavy in her hands pushing her back, and blood sprayed them both. The enemy fell back, a bullet lodged between his eyes.

She threw the gun to the side, her body was shaking. She turned back to Bianco, shaking her friend praying he’d wake up. The soldier fought to keep his eyes open. He took her hand and smiled. “It’s okay sunshine. We’ll… we’ll be okay.”

In the distance towards the woods, four men wearing the same colors as Bianco, ran towards them. Maggie, who still held Bianco’s hand, felt a spotlight of sunshine pour over her. It began to rain, even though the world grew brighter.

The drops were heavy and warm and then, it happened. Everything began to wash away. The dirt, the soot, the blood, it all washed away from the soldier and the little girl. As if God was washing their sins and woes away. Maggie couldn’t help but stare at the sky in wonder, and smile.

***

Bianco lost his leg a few days later. Maggie had no other family. So when Bianco went home, Maggie went with him. They were both welcomed home by his lovely wife. She was a woman with a mother’s heart, but could never have children of her own. So when little Maggie came along, she was nothing but overjoyed.

She grew up in a loving home. Granted, she and Bianco would still be haunted by the memories of that day. But whenever it rained, she would quietly sit outside and hum You are My Sunshine. Sometimes Bianco would sit with her and sing with her. Or they sat in silence as the sun came over the clouds making the raindrops shine.

Because if it was one thing she loved, it was sunshine and rain.

The Hallway of Flowers by Brianna Joyce

The Hallway of Flowers
Brianna Joyce

I remember when my mom gave me five dollars. Even when I was six, I knew the importance of that amount. One time, my school had a festival and were selling these flowers called “Snap Dragons”. I didn’t think they were all that pretty, but they had the name “Dragon” in it, and I knew my mom loved dragons, so I spent the five dollars and brought them home. It was a 40 minute drive from my home to school, so it was 40 minutes of balancing it in my lap while I told her about the rest of the festival. She smiled and listened intently. We were always getting home at seven or eight at night so when we walked in, I immediately sat them on the front porch freezer. You know, one of those you could lay a body down in.

This porch had magical powers. When we first moved in, it was a long hall with a washer and dryer at the end, along with a window that led to the couch where I had to climb through when my mom locked her keys in the house.

I can’t remember when we started collecting plants and flowers but it had seemed to start with one plant that we would water and make sure got enough sunlight. Soon one plant, became three plants. And day by day the hallway turned more… green… more… earthly.

Some plants began to hang from the ceiling and my mom would put me on her shoulders and let me water them. One night, I walked through the hall singing along when all of a sudden, I couldn’t see the washer and dryer. I kept going, but still nothing was there. All around me, fireflies lit up the surrounding leaves and I followed them. The flowers that were closed up, began to bloom roses and lilies. I sang louder and vines would grow and stretch to life.  

When I walked deeper in, the fireflies began to fade, the bright floral colors were beginning to lose their vibrant attraction. I kept a box of matches in my pocket and struck one to keep the light going. Other than the soft glow of the fire, I was surrounded by emptiness.

“Hello?” I asked weakly. It was too quiet, and then, I heard it. A deep, guttural noise from the dark abyss.

“Who… who’s there?” I squeaked. There was a low growl and then, it attacked! The Snap Dragons!

They tried to bite at me, taking turns snapping their vicious jaws at the light. I tried to run away, but they surrounded me. They tried to bite me again, but I managed to dodge their attacks. The leaves and vines began to pull themselves together as if to block my path, but I pushed past them. I tripped over my own two feet and stumbled near the edge of the perennial tunnel, and soon, I could hear them. The dragons! I shut my eyes tight and clenched my teeth as one lingered close to my face.

Just a few centimeters away…

It unhinged its jaws and I waited in despair as it sized up my head. It slowly lunged but quickly stopped.

I waited a few seconds, then slowly, I peeked to find that the Dragon had turned to stone. I looked to my right and saw the sun ceaselessly climbing over the trees. Soon, I could hear the cries of agony as the others began to wither away and I knew I was safe. I drew a deep sigh of relief and quickly made my way to bed before my mom found out. I slept soundly that morning… until I heard it.

That low… guttural… sound….

 

Daughter of Athena by Nick Grogan

Daughter of Athena
Nick Grogan

She wiped the little droplets of sweat from her forehead. The steam rose tall like large gates trapping her behind it’s defense. The aroma was normal in her house. The grease popped and hissed against her olive skin and each jerk was a reminder she was stuck doing this until all pieces of chicken were done.

Lexy sighed. This had been the third day in a row she had to come home and cook this shit. The house reeked with the stench and no matter how many windows, doors and vents she left open to quell the smell, nothing could fully destroy the attack on her nostrils. But of course, she trudged on without the slightest whiff of a complaint. What else could she actually do?

Terrance, her husband, bellowed at how well she could cook that damn chicken. He sat on the couch, looking in increments over in her direction to see if his woman was making progress. Lexy could see it from the corner of her eye, each incessant check, each pandering cock of the head, the low grumble of the hungry man.

“Hurry up,” she finally heard from him.

“I only got two hands, nigga.” Her voice muted against the violent grease pops.

“What?” another bellow came from the living room.

“Nothing,” she shook her head, “it’s almost done. Can you go tell the kids it’s almost ready, so they can wash up?”

The large release of air from his nostrils clashed with the grease pops and several stomps later he was on his way to get the kids. Lexy bore a hole through his large back but eventually went back to her duty. The kids must eat.

The pattering of six small feet came within seconds. The little ones were ginger coming down the staircase but as soon as they hit the wooden floors it was racing time. She turned toward them and smiled, telling them to sit down at their seats.

“Mike, make sure your sister and brother are set nicely in their seats.” The oldest of her three kids, but still pretty young himself, she depended on Mike heavily with taking care of his younger siblings. The boy, for what it was worth, was mature beyond his years and always seemed dependable in most situations. For a kid, at least. Lexy laid out four plates and spooned small portions for each child unto their plates, tripling the portions when it came to her’s. The banging of silver and screeches were cathartic compared to the sounds of boiling grease and breathy sighs.

She joined her children at the table and shared a few smiles, listening to their stories about what boy 1 did with girl 2 and how girl 1 started her own group of friends without girl 3. Not once was there an inquiry as to how her day went but she enjoyed their silly conversations nonetheless. Gasping on cue, asking the important questions, agreeing to their little madness. That brief moment wouldn’t last for long though. Terrance stomped back to the kitchen and stood at the threshold, his figure barely fitting in between the space. He circled the table where the four of them sat, inspecting what she only believed as the portions on their plates and how much was left for him.

“Where mine at?”

The air stifled, only the fading pitch of chirping birds were audible. She pointed towards the stovetop.

“Huh?” his voice a little louder than before.

“On. The. Stove.” Lexy’s eye twitched.

“You ain’t make me a plate?”

Really, she thought. Terrance never ate with them, but he loves to go on his soapbox and claim she wasn’t being the wife she promised to be. It wasn’t enough for her to get up before the rooster, fix the kids breakfast, get them on the bus and work eight hours a day. If only she had made that damn plate, right?

“Obviously not.”

“Don’t disrespect me in front of the kids. We don’t do that in this house, huh?”

“Nope. You’re right. How foolish of me to not have considered you when making dinner for the kids. Here let me get that for you.” She snatched the plate from his hands, gripped was like that of a golfer and splat the different foods on the plate. She could feel him watching. Asshole.

“Here.” She said. He let out a grunt and walked away from the table to his place on the couch, turned the television up and began smacking. Lexy sat back down, put a piece of cold chicken in her mouth and tried not to be noticeable when she sighed. Mike rubbed her arm for a little bit. She gave a little smile and angled her head toward her food.

Lexy was sore from the night before. Washing the dishes did not do her any justice and then she had to deal with the rough ineffective thrusts from Terrance for ten minutes. Those nights were always the worst because the words of her mother always came to her head. “Just let him be, he’s a man and it’s our job to make sure he’s able to do as he pleases.” An antiquated view on gender relations for sure, but Lexy continued to live by those standards.

Times were not always about making sure the hearth was taken care of. Lexy was into all the typical boy things: stick fighting, playing with bugs, wrestling with the other local kids in the summer heat, staying away from boys because they had the germ. Doing all the things schools in the south taught her were supposed to be unbefitting of a southern charm such as herself. Back at home with her mom were some of the same lessons she finished going over at school. Knitting, cooking, doing hair as a presentation for some undeserving suitor and etiquette. The last part however, more scenario-based teachings than mouth to ear.

She would be remiss to think her father was a bad one. Those sweltering summer days when he would take her and her brothers down to the lake and fish were nothing but testaments to his unconditional love for them. The pungent smell of each sturgeon they release back into the murky opaque waters came rushing back to her nostrils as she drove home. Dad always applauded her for outdoing her brothers at most “male” activities but always made sure to say to them how they should never let a woman outdo them. Lexy would snicker at them when she won, unknowing of the damage he continually caused to all three of them. At home, mother would have a fit about how unkept she was or how her body odor palpable when in fact the only thing men should smell is fragrance of her lotion. “Go wash up, now,” her mother used to say, “and do something about your hair. You know how much I hate those curls.”

Sometimes she wondered if her parents would be proud of her. By her mother’s standards absolutely. Three kids, a nice home, beautiful kitchen and bedroom; a real mark of success.

Lexy did away with thoughts of her parents and focused on what was to come. She was just promoted and couldn’t wait to tell the family. Finally, she was moving up the ladder and taking on some leading responsibilities at the office. It would require her to spend more time at work but nothing that wasn’t manageable.

She went inside the garage and noticed the smaller door was unlocked again. She just got home. The door to the house opened and Mike stood at the threshold.

“No bags today, sweetheart.” Her little man went back inside the house and she followed. Two steps in and her other two children rushed her like linemen, grabbing hold of her dress, peppering her with all sort of kisses and hugs. Their smells were familiar. Grass. Dirt. Outside. She wished they had been bathed before she came home.

“Hey Babe,” she called out. Terrance grunted. “I just got a promotion at work. I’m finally moving up.” Didn’t come out like she wanted but good news is hardly ever planned correctly.

“So, what does that mean?” His voice echoed across the hall.

“I’ll be getting paid more, but I have to stay at work a little longer.”

“What?”

“I have more responsibilities now, so I just have to put in a bit more time.”

“What about your responsibilities here?”

“Such as?”

“Matter fact, what you cooking tonight?”

“You tell me? You haven’t fed the kids?”

“Fuck no, I’m busy. I don’t have time to do all that.”

Busy doing bullshit was more like it. Terrance hadn’t worked in years thanks to a few lucky breaks and lawsuits. Most of the time he sat at home and watched tv, only making sure the kids got in the house okay. His busy work usually consisted of drinking, talking to his ex-wife, drinking, eating and shitting. Occasionally he would get off his ass and disappear a few hours and return home in the dead of the night, waking everyone in the house.

“So, you’re telling me I have to find something to cook at 7PM?”

“What else would you do? Don’t worry about me though, I’m going out.”

The image of her mother returned, and she pulled out the leftovers from the night before. The kids ate as their father stepped out of the house, each brutish step carrying echoes of his dominance. She knew he walked like that because in his eyes, he couldn’t be touched. Women were beneath his might, any one of them should be lucky to have a man like him and they would never be left alone about that fact. The door slammed, and the kids began their chaos as they always have once he left. She picked up the dishes.

Lexy heard the unsubtle crash of the keys late in the night. The frogs moaned their bitter tune against the call of the geese as her husband stumbled his way around the house. She shifted, hoping to feign sleep so he would just lay himself down in his drunken stupor. A knock here or there, a sorry came from the kids’ rooms before Terrance finally found the door to their bedroom. Lexy pressed her eyes down harder, tried to regulate her breathing and stay perfectly still.

He came anyway. The quick thud of his body on top of hers thwarted any attempt of possum. The effluvia of cocktails, cheap pussy and cigarettes encompassed her once pristine bedsheets. She ignored his unattractive mating call; small rumbles, a show of his teeth, the eerie curl of his lips. The usual suspects.

“Come on, Baby,” he half-hearted whispered in her ear.

She declined, gesturing him away like she would a fly. It didn’t stop him. Crabby hands made their way up her gown, a tongue stabbing the side of her face, the heat of his breath seizing the clean air around her. She winced. Each grotesque grunt followed by another. Her eyes fixated on the ceiling, counting the seconds until it would finally be over. Her mother would emphasize the importance of keeping a man satisfied no matter the occasion. “The duty of the wife was never over, even if another woman has helped you out a little.” The view of the ceiling distorted to a wetness and the lessons of her mother chimed ever so as the barbaric man had his way with his woman.

Three hundred seconds. She turned over and clutched the sheets. The darkness gave her solace while the shower’s hum lulled her to an escape.

She woke to the smell of fresh bacon being fried. There were clutters and clatters coming from downstairs and the sweet laughs of her little children brought relief to her tired body. There was something else, a laugh from a voice she hadn’t heard in a long time. The soft, passive voice of a man who spoke with purity. The vibrato of each syllable danced around his tongue, playing a sweet sonnet of which only the foolish would not be enticed by. It had been so long since she heard that voice and through the haze she saw its silhouette.

“Hey, Baby,” the wide, commanding figure said in front of the glares of the sun, “the kids and I made you breakfast. Come down when you’re ready. But not too long, wouldn’t want the food to get cold.”

The kids? What did this voice know of her ki- Terrance? Her eyes fixed upon his figure, making out the subtle details of his large frame. His face washed, the stench replaced by what smelled of frankincense. She sized him up one more time and nodded.

Although she heard the commotion earlier, the scene she walked in to was different. The kitchen utensils neatly cleaned and drying in the rack, frying pans already disposed of the grease, neat plates already prepped with respective meals.

“Come sit,” Terrance motioned for her to sit at the table. Her approach was ginger. She looked at all the kids eating, quiet as predators finally catching their prey. Mike was the closest to her, so she rubbed his head. As long as they were okay.

“Where did you learn to do all this?” The food was a wonderful medley of aromas and tastes. Each type of food fulfilled a different objective. At the same time, they complimented each other like a marriage. The flavors partnered with each other to fulfil their common purpose, not leaving anything out. It was complete.

His smile brought her back to the wonderful days of him courting her. “I know a lil’ something,” he said.

“Yeah but this is really good!” The kids agreed in unison.

“Oh-ho! You didn’t think I had the skills!”

“That’s not it silly,” she lightly tapped his knee under the table, “I just don’t remember you telling me about how you versed in the culinary arts.”

“Well, if you must know,” his eyes trailed from hers, “When my cousins weren’t beating me and constantly reminding me of how luck I was to be living in their space, they actually taught me useful skills like this.”

“Oh.” Lexy eyes couldn’t meet his anymore.

“Great. You’ve gone and ruined the whole damn meal.” She snatched her head up, cocking it to one side. Terrance banged against the table, the two youngest began to cry. “You just had to ask something so fucking stupid, huh?”

“No that’s not it. It was really good and I-”

“I didn’t ask for your fucking response. Here I am, busting my ass to make this nice fucking breakfast for you and the kids and you just can’t keep your mouth fucking shut and eat like a goddamn human being. The family suffers when you act like that.”

She should have known it wouldn’t last. It was always like this only he wou- her head slammed against the table, sirens screamed inside her head. There was a deep pressure behind her neck and it progressively got tighter. He was choking her. She tried to scream. Nothing. Two of the little ones were crying but she couldn’t hear Mike anywhere. Lexy prayed Terrance wouldn’t kill her today.

“Get off of her!” Mike’s scream rose over the wailings of his younger siblings and Lexy froze, she didn’t know the capacity of Terrance’s rage and surely didn’t want it to be turned on to Mike. She faintly heard light thumps and felt the impacts of each hit from her son’s small hands.

“Stupid little boy. Just like your mother!” The grip Terrance had on her loosened. There was a clap. “Fuck this.” Terrance released Lexy and stampeded out of the house, knocking over family photos, memorabilia and other aesthetics in the process, shattering must in dozens of pieces.

Lexy ran to her son, checking him for any additional bruises. She gathered the other two kids, held them tight and cried.

This was too hard for her. Lexy knew there was no way she was going to survive. That was the first time he had ever laid a hand on her, but the impact of the blow was excruciating. She had seen her mother take beatings like that all the time. Each time, the thuds were loud and noticeable behind closed doors. Every time though, her mom would smear the blood from the corners of her mouth, straighten her blouse and continue the work she had set for the day. Her father always had called her mom weak. Lexy always agreed because there was no way a woman would continually take beatings like that.

Lexy knew she couldn’t. She rolled the windows down and started the car. It ran for moments and the haze around slowly filled the area. The kids had been put to bed and Terrance had been gone for most of the day after his incident. She just couldn’t take it anymore. The only way she knew how to get back at him would be for him to take care of the kids without him. It’ll show him how weak he actually is.

The first nod came. There was an unbelievable tiredness. Lexy figured the last thing she wanted to do was think of something so negative, at least once she wanted to do something that would fill her with happiness. She thought back to a time her Dad had taken just her fishing. She was the best one out her siblings and he said he wanted to spend some time with his “little girl.”

They sat in the boat, the morning sun barely reaching over the horizon, mosquitoes attacking their skin searching for any way to break the human flesh. Fish jumped out of the water and the boat lulled slowly on the waters as father and daughter stared out, not saying a word to each other.

“Lex,” her father finally broke the silence, “Don’t let what your mom and I do happen to you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Athena is a strong woman. I know I treat her like shit most of the time, but that is the only woman I know that scares the shit out of me.”

“Daddy, I don’t see that. Everything I see seems like she just takes it. How can she be strong?”

“Every beating you think she takes is a damn fight. She looks me in the eye every time and never sheds a single tear. She’s strong because I can never break her spirit. Your Dad has never been a great husband and I take it out on Athena all the time. But, she right back in there every day making shit hard on me.”

“I never knew that.”

“That means we sort of did our job. I just wish I never hurt her in the first place. But what’s done is done, all I hope is that when you are finally married, you nip that shit in the bud before it gets too out of hand. Promise?”

“I promise.”

Her father committed suicide not much longer after and her mother stood tall, married another sweeter man and all that time Lexy hated her for being weak and not cherishing her late husband’s legacy. It was as if their last talk went through one ear and out the other, but now that she was reminded of the peaceful scenery with her father, she could plainly see how pissed and determined her mother would be after every argument or beating. Not because she was ashamed of her inadequacies as a wife, but because her dumbass husband had actually tried her again. Her mom had the grace to keep moving forward and never breaking just because someone meant to abuse her.

Lexy nodded again, the haze was heavier and thicker, almost palpable in the garage. It smelled of her weakness and she took what little strength she had remaining and pressed the remote to open the garage. The haze rushed away from its prison, letting its purer cousin occupy the space, turning the area into a clean pasture of opportunity. She breathed. The fog began to dissipate, and her vision cleared.

Inside the low rumbles of the kids breathing occupied the house’s enclosures and Lexy sat in the chair Terrance usually sat in.

He finally came home. The noise he usually makes accompanied him along the way and she stared at his hulking frame.

“Finally decided to come home?”

“Fuck you still durrrring up?” his body leaned.

“Waiting on you.”

“You apologisssing?”

“Hardly.” She raised from her seat as a queen would when leaving her throne. Each step deliberates, her eyes never off him or his swaying figure. “I think we need to have a talk.”

He reached up and slammed his palm across her face. She barely budged, the pain she had received from him all seemed trivial. The kids in bed were more important than her feelings of embarrassment and shame. She needed to teach them that this way of life was not certain and would not have to be repeated. Lexy knew Mike would probably remember these moments but the other two little ones would be spared for the most part.

“Who are you talking to like this, bitch?” He went in for another but Lexy was quick, moving under him and placing the cold steel object just under her husband’s chin. The image of her mother staring intently and approvingly at her was solid. Her mother nodded. The lessons about being womanly were not all about being the perfect wife, they were about perseverance and dignity, something she had never seen in her mother. But now she saw it clearly. The woman she so harshly scorned was actually who Lexy would have to become.


Sometimes he writes just to find deeper meaning in his thoughts. An unpolished product, as it was intended.

 

Nerves and Water by Caroline Galdi

Nerves and Water
Caroline Galdi

The pantry was empty except for a can of tomatoes, a can of beans, half a box of dry pasta, and a limp blue plastic package that had once held Oreos. Jen grabbed the Oreo package and peered into it, hoping to find remnants. It was empty but for a scattering of telltale brown dust. Sighing, she considered her dinner options. There was no point trying to make this last—it’d get eaten soon either way. She still had money in the bank. She’d go grocery shopping tomorrow. And then—and then she’d cross that bridge when she came to it.

She lugged the ingredients out onto the counter and turned on the stove. There was a saucepan somewhere around here, a nice one that had once been her dad’s. She gave a dry laugh. If she moved back in, she could loan it back to him. She didn’t savor the idea of that phone call, of a dejected homecoming, of soiling the rose-tinted childhood memories she had of her parents’ place.

She found the saucepan hiding under Ashley’s vegetable spiralizer. Ashley’s low-carb phase had been painful to witness, but mercifully short. She’d tried to get Jen on board, and Jen had retaliated by going vegetarian and eating nothing but pasta. At least Ashley had never invited her to the gym, like her mom always did. As she began wrangling the tomatoes open with a can opener, Jen wondered if her mom was still doing CrossFit. If she moved home, would her mom move the elliptical out of her bedroom? Or would she make her sleep with that ghastly exercise skeleton looming over her every night?

The pan went on the stove. Tomatoes went in the pan and sat there limply. Jen scrambled for a non-plastic utensil to stir with. She found a silicone spatula in the drawer next to the stove. It looked clean enough, and she gave the tomatoes an encouraging stir. Lots of people were failures when they were young, right? Steve Jobs was a dropout. But, she supposed, being a Harvard dropout was probably more prestigious on its own than being a graduate of pretty much anywhere else. The tomatoes still sat in the bottom of the pan, immobile in their juices. She turned the stove up a little higher and went to find a pan for the pasta.

An ant was crawling up the sink faucet when Jen went to fill the pan. She squished it and flicked the black smudge on her finger into the sink. She was usually a stickler about killing bugs, but the ants in this place were asking for it at this point. They were barely animals anyway—nerves and water connected to some central hivemind. Who was it who had told her that? Nerves and water. Maybe it’d been her manager. Laurie.

Laurie. Sweet, sweet Laurie, who’d taught her all the tricks to making the best soy lattes in town. Laurie, who dressed like a librarian and swore like a sailor, who hung pictures of her grown-up children behind the counter. Laurie, who’d treated Jen like her own child, who’d always been fair and just and kind.

Jen put the water on to boil on the other burner and heard footsteps from the direction of Ashley’s room.

“How was work? How’s the new owner?” asked Ashley, her hair up in greasy pigtails. “Is that my spatula?”

“I’ll clean your spatula,” said Jen. “Work was fine.”  

“Really? I heard he fired someone.”

“Who told you that?” asked Jen, opening and closing drawers, trying to remember where she stashed stolen restaurant salt packets.  

“Justin’s roommate’s girlfriend said she stopped by the shop today and heard yelling. Apparently he fired, like, half the baristas. Is it true?”

The tomatoes began to burn.

A Practical Guide to Wound Healing by Lucy Marshall

A Practical Guide to Wound Healing
Lucy Marshall

She lived alone in the woods. There was something eerie about her, though one would be hard pressed to say what, exactly, it was. Perhaps it was a glint in her eye, or the knowing edge to her smile. She had long, dark hair, a charming face, and a strange, lilting way of speaking. She frightened the villagers, but they would never lift a finger against her. There were other things in the woods. Things much darker than the witch. As long as she protected them, she could stay.

She knew they were unnerved by her, although she blithely pretended not to notice. She hummed to herself under the willow tree, shaving silver bark into her basket. Her long skirts dragged in the mud and moonlit water. Her breath plumed in the frozen air, the chilly night coiling around her like a second skin. Ice gathered in the lace of her dress. None of this bothered her. Her dexterous fingers and small, sharp knife made quick work of the tree, bark peeling away in long, slender strands. Willow was an excellent painkiller, and she had a persistent, needling feeling that she would need a lot of it very soon. She recognized the feeling as a premonition and knew better than to ignore it.

She sang tunelessly to herself as she worked. It is often said that a Witch’s voice is enchanting, but hers was sub-par. The kelpie in the river listened contentedly anyway. A creature that resembled an owl watched from the boughs of a tree, eyes gleaming in the moonlight.

She skipped along the bank, heedless of the mud splattering her skirts and boots, basket swinging gayley. Herbs dripped over the edges, colorful flowers bobbing. She tucked the knife into her dress. Her hair bounced around her shoulders, studded with tiny crystals of frost. She smiled and strode along the banks, water swirling around her shoes. It was a strange sight, a lovely, mad-looking woman strolling cheerfully through the black woods at midnight under the full moon, a myriad of shining eyes watching her from the shadows. She left no footprints. There was something in the woods that did not appreciate her gentle song, or the way she pulled the cold around her like a cloak, the way the moonlight glimmered off her skin and glittering hair. It could smell the magic on her, trailing in the waters of the river and soaking into the earth. All the plants bloomed more vigorously in her wake and the light poured like liquid silver around her.

She could feel the hungry eyes on her back. It made the skin between her shoulder blades itch. She had felt the eyes on her for the past several months, growing more and more venomous. Something was growing restless. Her song faltered. A small fae creature trilled unhappily, and she hastily picked the tune back up.

She made her way back towards her cottage, following the mercurial pull of magic. She was particularly fond of full moon magic. It was soft and silvery and made something swirl delightedly in her breast. Her cottage did not look like a witch’s cottage. Or, more accurately, it did not look like the witch’s cottage the villages likely expected. It was a small, three-roomed affair, ivy and moss and climbing roses crawling determinedly up the slate walls. Yellow honeysuckles draped themselves over the tree branches, nodding lazily. A black cat sat on the neat little stoop, watching her with wide green eyes. The witch smiled at the animal, who meowed in return. It got to its feet, silver and moonstone charm around its neck glittering, and trotted up to her side.

The cat, Knox, glared reproachfully as she realized that she wouldn’t be able to wind
around the witch’s ankles. The witch smiled, smug. The cat had a terrible habit of tripping her and making her drop her basket.

They climbed the steps and the witch, whose name was Serena, unlocked the door. Immediately, rows and rows of cheerful, half-melted white candles burst to life. Some bobbed in the air, others littered every available surface, cantilevered like legions of drunken soldiers. Bundles of dried and drying herbs hung from the ceiling and the walls were covered with strange metal contraptions, painted symbols, and exotic art. Any surface not occupied by candles played a host to a myriad of books, some stacked in precarious piles, others left open and set aside, stuffed with pages of notes in Serena’s elegant scrawl. A huge bookshelf dominated one wall, so full that the wood strained. Little glass vials full of multicolored liquids crowded the shelves over a thick butcher block counter. Two large blackened metal cauldrons sat shoved in the corner, flanking a neat broomstick that hovered an inch above the floor. A large black owl watched her calmly from the rafters.

The floor was absolutely clean. Potion making and spell casting could be dangerous work, and one of the first things a witch learned was to keep her workspace floor clear. No one wanted to spill a half made, simmering potion down their front. The cat, Knox, darted away and leaped onto the worn, cozy old couch, finding a clear spot on a thick woolen afghan to settle down and watch. Serena strode into the generous kitchenette and set her basket down atop a pile of books. Despite their frankly absurd angles, they did not fall over. She really should clean up, but her fingers trailed along the complex diagrams of stars and planets, the careful illustrations of flora and fauna, and the painstaking lines of cramped writing, and could not bear to set them aside.

Serena was a certified bibliophile, and there were more books in her home than in the three nearest villages combined, not to mention the maps, charts, and scroll she bought from sailors and merchant when they passed through. Serena loved knowledge, which was part of what made her a formidable witch, a sensible woman, and contributed to the villagers’ distrust. Sensible women, she had found, quite terrified un-sensible people.

There was something heavy in the shadows tonight. The moonlight streamed in, pooling on the floor and distilling in bright quartz crystals placed strategically around the cottage. The black owl hooted. Serena hadn’t named it; he neither needed or wanted a name. Unlike Knox, he was entirely wild, and while Knox would be thoroughly offended to be called tame, she lived with Serena, and thus, needed a name.

Serena began picking curls of willow from the green stems of other plants. She was quick to shut the willow and the foxglove into a small wooden box with the rest of her potential poisons, worried for Knox, who had a habit of chewing on leaves left in the open. In went the wolfsbane and holly, the stinging nettles and lily petals, the yarrow, oleander, and other toxic plants. The harmless ones were carefully sorted and put in their own box, then placed on the shelves with the other potion ingredients. She would string up the ones that needed drying tomorrow morning. Until then, they would remain preserved in their respective places.

Serena eyes her potion store critically. She was running low on several ingredients. Kelpie hairs and grave dirt were easy enough to get ahold of. Banshee tears and phoenix feathers, on the other hand, were much trickier. She hoped a merchant came through town soon. She sorely regretted that she didn’t live near the ocean and the mountains herself, but she was needed in the woods. If it came to it, she could spare a weeks journey, but the crawling darkness in the forest was unsettling, and she was reluctant to vacate her post. She put it out of her mind, taking up a notebook and glossy owl feather quill to jot down notes. The prickling feeling of premonition had eased, but there was something coiling uncomfortably in her gut.

Willow, she thought. Cobwebs. Honey. Goldenrod. All shining in her mind’s eyes like gemstones. Wound healing, she thought with dread. And a lot of it. She looked worriedly at Knox, who seemed unconcerned. She watched Serena out of brilliant emerald eyes, slitted in the gloom. Her paws were tucked under her chest and her tail twitched from side to side. The owl in the rafters hooted calmly. Serena trusted their instincts, but even so, she found it difficult to sleep that night. She felt like something was watching her. Something that meant her, meant all of them, harm. And it wasn’t the kelpie in the river.

Serena woke to gentle sunlight spilling across her face and a weight on her chest. Knox’s nose was nearly pressed to hers. The dappled sunshine was warm and Serena stretched luxuriously, reluctant to climb out of bed. Now that she was awake, however, the world around her bright and alive, she found it impossible to fall asleep again. With a reluctant sigh, she sat up. Knox landed with a fwump and a disgruntled meow on the blankets beside Serena. A book toppled to the floor and she jumped, fur fluffing up along her spine. Serena laughed, standing and pulling a red and black robe over her nightgown.

She padded into the main room, inhaling the scents of herbs and flowers and old books. The door was ajar. She frowned at it. The owl was fast asleep in the rafters. Nothing had been disturbed, but she was certain that she had closed the door behind her. Closed and locked. Nothing untoward should have been able to open that door, but there it was, sunlight streaming in through the gap. The crawling feeling was back and stronger than ever. She remembered a gaze full of hatred and hunger and shuddered, checking the lock again. The symbol carved delicately into the metal glittered in the light, free of the thin coat of rust that usually covered it. Unsettled, Serena knelt and checked the runes carved into the doorframe and the stoop. The symbols were still there, still strong, but every scrap of dirt and dust that should have been settled like a downy blanket on their surfaces had disappeared.

Serena hurtled down the steps and fell to her knees in the dirt, not caring that her whitenightgown was stained, not caring that her robe flowed after her like a matador’s flag beforespilling to the dirt in a puddle of crimson and black. She looked wild, the sunlight and shadows playing across her clothing and glowing in her tiger’s eyes.

There were pawprints in the dry black dirt. They were larger than her spread hand, long and bestial, but there was something disturbingly human in the spread of the toes. There was nothing human, however, in the unmistakable mark of razor claws sinking into the soil. A shiver like frigid talons shredded down her spine.

Knox meowed from the doorway. Serena jumped to her feet, fear making her quick. “Knox, no,” she snapped, holding out a hand. “Stay inside.” Knox froze. She was a cat, and thus she did not take orders, but there was something deadly serious and very scared in Serena’s voice. Knox made a quizzical twittering sound, glossy raven fur prickling. Serena tried to smile reassuringly. The footprints stopped at the foot of her stairs. Willow. Cobwebs. Honey. Goldenrod. She scrambled back up the steps and into the room, snatching her messenger bag and madly stuffing things into it. In went tinctures and bandages, potions, a sewing kit, clean water, boxes of herbs and bundles of cotton. In too went a pair of silver daggers, a sharp iron poker, bottles of magnesium and salt, and a large pair of shears.

She shoved a thick leather-bound book into the bag, barely stopping to see what she was grabbing, trusting her hands to know what she needed. When the itch in her head subsided, she stopped and peered around the cluttered cottage. Knox was standing on the table, watching her, tail waving. The black owl was glaring out of sleepy yellow eyes. She couldn’t see anything else that might be useful, and though she was not entirely certain what was in her bag, she felt prepared. Well, as prepared as she could, considering the circumstances.

Her broom flew obediently into her hand and she grabbed a heavy black cloak from the rack by the door. It settled around her shoulders like a pair of great black wings. The clasp was silver and glinted in the light. She dashed out of the door, slamming it behind her with a loud thud and a click, then nearly tripped over a sleek, furry something under her bare feet. She stumbled and caught herself on a tree laden with flowers. Knox looked up her innocently. Serena growled in the back of her throat, but something told her to allow the little cat to come. After all, what kind of witch didn’t have a helpful black shadow of a cat at her heels?

Sighing, she lifted the little creature into her arms and placed the broom horizontally in the air. It stayed there, motionless. She looked sternly into Knox’s great green eyes. “Do not,” she said, “scratch me.” Knox meowed. She was a clever creature, and Serena hoped she had gotten the message even though cats, traditionally, do not speak.

She jumped neatly onto her broom, which sank under her weight before recovering. The broom was an entirely inanimate object without her, but she was fond of it, in the way that many people are fond of their mode of transportation, and had a habit of addressing the broom like a living being. A bundle of soft golden feathers and bright stones swayed from the end of the handle. She balanced Knox securely on her thigh, tucked under one arm, and took hold of the handle. The stones glittered, catching the sunshine in a wholly unnatural manner. Serena kicked off.

The broom soared into the blue sky. Wind whistled past Serena, tangling her curls, sending her cloak streaming out behind her. A handful of songbirds burst out of the trees, twittering indignantly. Serena shouted an apology, the wind snatching her words away. A crow flew beside her, black wings beating in the air. It cawed happily, mistaking her for one of its own. Serena smiled. She liked crows.

The broom soared above the trees, catching a crisp, gentle breeze and racing towards the village. Lush green leaves zipped past below her. The sunlight was warm against her back despite the wind. Knox’s claws dug painfully into her thigh and her heavy bag pulled at her shoulder.

It took them very little time to reach the village. Flying was quite an expedient, not to mention enjoyable, mode of travel. Even the nerves leaping like a shoal of fat silver fish in her gut couldn’t banish the delight Serena took flying. The crow peeled off abruptly as she began her descent, letting out an alarmed caw when it realized where she was going. That was not a reassuring sign. She could not hear any birds, or, in fact, hear any sign of non-human life, as she dipped back into the woods. Even the little giggling fae among the branches were silent, not one single one trying to tempt her off the path. Dread shot down her spine.

Knox leaped to the floor before she had come to a full stop, grateful to be on terra firma once again. Cats were not meant to fly. Humans were not meant to fly either, but humans often have misguided ideas about what is good for them, so this did not deter them one bit. Serena jumped gracefully off the broom and took off running, leaving it suspended in the air. Knox bounded along at her ankles and her robe, cloak, and gown flapped after her in a series of strange banners. The rough forest terrain did not bother Serena. She ran so quickly and lightly that she barely seemed to touch the ground, feet guided by some peculiar second nature. Not a single twig dared to catch and yank at her hair on that day, not a bee or wasp or biting ant took advantage of her exposed skin.

She had landed a little under a mile away from the village proper, aware that dropping from the sky on a broomstick, whatever her intentions, was inviting trouble, but she and Knox cleared the distance in less than two minutes. She skidded to a stop in the center of the village, earning herself scandalized looks from the proper village folk. Here she was, this wild young thing, showing up in her nightclothes, hair unbrushed and wind-tossed, hem stained, barefoot. As ever, she did not care. She spun around, searching. Knox growled, a deep, low snarl summoned from somewhere primal in the animal’s body. The phrase ‘scaredy cat’ is misleading in many cases, and Knox remained stubbornly at Serena’s side.

Serena grabbed the arm of the nearest passer-by. She registered blonde ringlets and a fine silk dress. Tessa, a voice supplied, though the girl was a stranger. “Tessa, have you noticed anything strange recently? Aside from me, that is.” Tessa looked stunned and horrified, staring at Serena’s hand like it was venomous. Serena snarled, taking Tess by both shoulders and turning her so they were nose to nose. Tessa’s eyes were wide and blue and scared as she stared into Serena’s fierce, handsome face. “Tell me!”

Tessa squeaked, terrified, and pointed frantically down the road. “There were strange sounds from the Tyler farm this morning,” she yelped. “I heard some traders talking about it, but that’s all I know!” Serena dropped her without another word and took off at a dead sprint. That little interaction would do nothing for her reputation, but at the moment she couldn’t care less. She felt sick, her stomach turning over and over, premonition screaming in her brain. Willow. Cobwebs. Honey. Goldenrod. She ran as fast as her legs could carry her, the wind gathering under her arms and propelling her across the ground. Knox raced loyally beside her. The pair was a black, red, and white blur, sending alarmed villagers scattering. The wind seemed to laugh, skipping around Serena like a pack of playful wolves.

She could smell something burning, something hideous and acrid, and her gut clenched. Bile rose in her throat. She recognized that smell: burning flesh. She raced up the path to the farmhouse, registering distantly that there were no horses, no cows, no fowl, to be seen. Strange, elongated footprints marred the dirt. The door shattered inward in front of her and she bounded through the entrance, the scent of blood thick and revolting. She swerved around the corner, feet nearly slipping out from under her in her haste, and froze. Something hot and sticky splashed up onto the hem of her nightgown. Knox stumbled into the back of her legs, yowling unhappily as her claws scrambled for purchase on the smooth wood. Serena was too busy trying not to throw up to pay her any mind.

The farmer had always been a nice man. He hadn’t trusted her, there were too many stories of witches diseasing cattle for that, but they had an understanding. She had provided him with a cure for his sickly daughter and he gave her a discount on cheese and eggs, and a few other things that must have seemed downright strange, like feathers and fur and toenails. He was sprawled out on the ground in the living room, although that was perhaps the wrong word. More accurately, he was scattered there, along with something red and squishy that, judging by the long auburn and silver hairs and torn leather boots, might have been his wife and son. Serena retched. She recognized the muddy, crimson pawprints on the carpet. They were the same ones she had seen outside her cottage. The thought that those horrific talons had been so close to her for so long squeezed like a vice around her heart. It had been so close and she had done nothing and now the Tylers were dead. Except someone was missing. Their daughter, Elizabeth, the one she had saved as a baby, wasn’t there. It was difficult to tell, but she couldn’t see any scattered golden hairs or shredded pink bows that would have indicated her presence.

She forced herself to step forward, the carpet squelching, oozing between her toes, and inspected the remains. She saw no sign of the little girl, though she did find a torn eyelet blanket that had once, probably, been white. Mrs. Tyler had been expecting, she remembered suddenly, and tears spilled down her cheeks. Behind her, Knox howled. Serena whirled to see her cat turned into a Halloween caricature, back arched into a near-perfect crescent, fur standing straight out, eyes wide and wild. She scrambled to Knox’s side and screamed at the top of her lungs.

Serena was not a woman prone to fear or exaggeration. She was, as mentioned earlier, a very sensible girl. The thing in the hall, however, banished every sensible thought from her sensible brain and replaced them with the high, blank buzz of the truly terrified. She screamed loudly enough to send distant birds scattering, to cause every dog in the village to howl and the wind itself to stumble in surprise. The kelpie in the river snorted, and the black owl lifted its disgruntled head. Her horrified screaming and Knox’s yowl mingled into a hair-raising sound of absolute fear that would have been enough to turn the stomach of even the bravest of men.

The creature nightmarish, all twisted lines and vitriolic, burning eyes. Its claws were longer than most kitchen knives and wickedly hooked, and it was so blatantly almost-human that she wanted to cry. It was soaked with blood and flecked with little bits of the Tylers. Knox screeched indignantly, offended by the incredible unnaturalness of the grotesque figure. Serena reached into her bag with shaking hands. She had never been so afraid in her life. She had stood toe to toe with kelpies and fae, with dragons and sea monsters and sphinxes, and nothing she had seen had been so deeply, viscerally upsetting. It was its eyes, she thought. They were so human, but the emotion in them was so far beyond anything human that it was dizzying. It advanced on her, growling low in its throat. Knox snarled, backing away beside her girl.

The creature was taller than Serena, tall enough that she had to tilt her head back, giving her a disturbingly good view of its long, bloodstained teeth. It advanced, slowly at first, and then all at once. It launched itself forward, slamming Serena into the wall, its claws sinking into the soft flesh of her shoulder, scraping the bone. Serena shrieked in agony, the creature’s foul, stinking breath steaming around her face.

She thrust her dagger up, driving it between the creature’s ribs. It yelped like a wounded dog but didn’t let go. She caught a flash of fangs and just managed to twist out of the way. She had the terrible feeling that letting those fangs meet her flesh would be the end of her. There was something diseased about those jaws, something ugly and gangrenous. She twisted the knife, the creature’s bulk pressing down on her, claws burning like fire in her shoulder. She snapped her left hand out, the razor point of her second dagger slicing through the tendons of its paw. It screeched, obviously not expecting her to still be fighting.

Her vision was going fuzzy and blood, both her own and the Tyler’s, soaked into her clothes. The Tyler’s were still warm, and that filled her with rage. Her desperate, cold fingers closed on something glass in her bag, and she smashed it into the side of the creature’s head. There was a sizzle, a flare of blinding light and searing heat, and a familiar smell. Magnesium. The beast recoiled with a howl. Serena scrambled to her feet, stumbling towards the Tyler’s kitchen. Blood streamed, hot and vital, down her arms. She couldn’t feel the wound, but she knew that her lifeblood was slipping away. She had precious little time before she wouldn’t be able to lift her head, let alone fight a creature twice her size. Knox was mewling, bouncing around her ankles, trembling as droplets of dark blood spattered her flank. Serena collapsed against the heavy wooden table. The air smelled strongly of herbs. There was a small, muffled scuffling from the larder.

Serena struggled to stand, panting. Her head was spinning. She reached into her bag, searching for something, anything, to help her. Her slick fingers closed on the cover of her book. She spared a moment to feel annoyed that it was being damaged, but pulled it out and dropped it onto the table anyway. It fell open to a yellowed page, worn, covered with nearly indecipherable diagrams. She scanned it, trying to find something useful. She could hear the creature standing in the other room, coming closer. A sentence stood out to her: …restless spirits are vulnerable to salt, iron, and… The creature didn’t look like a restless spirit, but she remembered the disturbing human intelligence in its eyes, the bipedal spread of its toes. She scrambled for the iron poker in her bag, her fingers closing on the slender shape and a smooth glass container. Salt. Her hands were so slick with blood that she could barely keep hold of them, and her vision was alarmingly dim. There was a strange ringing in her head and she realized with dread that she was shivering. She hastily shoved a handful of willow into her mouth and began to chew. It was a dangerous move. Willow could thin the blood, but she could feel a dreadful tingling in her arm, and she knew that if the pain sank in she was a dead woman.

The creature appeared in the doorway. Serena tried to straighten, but her knees crumpled. She dropped the poker. The creature appeared in the doorway, stalking towards her, claws gleaming. She closed her eyes, reaching hopelessly across the tile but knowing that she wouldn’t get there in time. But then the creature stumbled back, a small, howling black shape fixed upon its shoulder. Serena almost laughed. Knox was fixed like a burr to its back, scratching and biting with all the strength her little body could muster. Serena’s fingers found the poker.

The creature twisted, claws reaching for Knox, and Serena’s fear for the cat spurred her forward. She drove the poker up hard, piercing the creature’s side and curving up towards its heart. The sound the beast made was so unbelievably awful that Serena’s ears shuddered. Knox leaped to the counter. Serena collapsed to the floor, a puddle of red and black on the ground. The creature writhed, screaming, its sticky black lifeblood oozing down its side. It limped towards the witch, slobbering and snarling. Serena dragged herself backward with her good arm, the other one limp and bloodsoaked by her side.

They were dying, both of them, but the creature was so full of rage that it mustered its failing strength for one final act of vengeance. It crouched over Serena, claws tearing the cloak spilled out around her, paws on either side of her head. Its thick yellow saliva dripped onto her chest, hot and slimy, and its teeth hovered over her face. Serena tried to pull herself away but her arms trembled with pain. Desperate, she grabbed the edge of her cloak and yanked with all her might. The creatures paws were wrenched out from under it, and it collapsed on top of her. Serena gasped, the burning weight sending waves of agony down her arm and driving the breath from her lungs.

The creature’s teeth were alarmingly close to her throat, but Serena was a sensible woman, and she had the presence of mind to recall the glass orb she clutched in her hand. She lashed out, slamming the orb into the creatures eye. The shards of glass cut into her palm, but she didn’t care, grinding the glass and salt into its face.

The creature howled, the kind of howl that rips its way down the spine and buries itself in the heart, that stops the lungs and freezes the blood. It eyes bubbled and steamed, the creature reeling backward, pawing at its face. Its claws dug great strips of flesh from its own head, exposing white bone and hideous black flesh. It collapsed, whimpering, bleeding out on the floor.

Serena sagged against the ground. Her nightgown wasn’t white anymore. Knox crept up to her and licked at her cheek, pink tongue frantic. Serena couldn’t even gather the energy to stroke her spine. “It’s okay,” she gasped. Her lips were cold and numb. She could hear scuffling from the larder, and the door swung open. A pair of bright green eyes appeared in her greying vision. Like me, a voice whispered. Small hands reached for her messenger bag. “What do I do?” A high little voice piped.

“Willow,” Serena whispered, voice thin and weak. “Cobwebs. Honey. Wound treatment.” Elizabeth Tyler set to work, guided by an itch at the back of her mind.


Lucy Marshall is a freshman at UNCG. She is an aspiring author, artist, and actress, and can be found online on twitter and instagram at Bluebirddraws.

The Audition by Caroline Galdi

THE AUDITION
Caroline Galdi

 

Amanda’s violin complemented her. It seemed the perfect size, as if it had been made for the space under her chin. “It fits you so well,” I’d told her once. “You could be, like, a violin model.”

She’d shrugged at this comment and continued to hash out another peal of scales. Amanda was always practicing. “Five hours a day,” she’d told me when I asked. “But that’s a minimum, you know? If I have time I’ll practice more.”

The scholarship competition was today, at a college half an hour away, and her parents were busy, so I’d offered to drive her there.  She’d told me not to bother watching her perform, but I insisted.

“Don’t you want moral support?”

“Moral support? Really?”

“Sure. I mean, you’re gonna do great, though. You don’t even need moral support.”

She rolled her eyes. “Then don’t watch me, ‘cause I’m gonna suck. I haven’t practiced this enough.”

“You already practice a hundred million hours,” I said, turning into the parking lot. “And you’re good at this. You’re talented.”

“I mean I’m not really, but thanks,” she said, staring out at the gridlock of cars. “I guess.”

She was so modest.

 

The college had practice rooms. Tiny, windowless closets. A muffled cacophony came through the walls: the clamor of piano keys, the high-pitched whistle of flutes, the low rumble of basses. I lounged on the piano bench in the room Amanda had taken, picking absentmindedly at the peeling layer of black nylon to reveal a layer of sickly yellow foam.

She pointed at a key on the upright piano (“That’s A,” she said, “no, not the black one. The white one. There.”) and asked me to press it again and again while she plucked at each string, listening carefully and making tiny turns to the scroll pegs. I droned the A, watching how intent she looked as she tuned. I felt good about this—I was helping her tune. I was supporting her.

“Stop,” she told me. “Piano’s out of tune.” She pulled up an app on her phone and had it play an electronic tone for her, and tuned to that instead. I returned to picking at the patch of exposed foam, which looked kind of like a map of what Florida might look like if sea level rose a few feet.

“How do you know it’s out of tune?”

She shrugged. “I have a pretty good ear. It’s just something you learn to do.”

I wondered what it was like to have such a deep connection with the music. It must be spiritual, I figured. Or sexual. Could playing an instrument turn you on? Weren’t there vibrations? I’d once known some Modest Mouse songs on guitar, but all I remembered was getting blisters on my fingers.  

She picked up her bow, drew tone after tone out of the violin’s hollow body; long, keening cries. I marveled at the concentration in her petite face. We were the same age, but I dwarfed Amanda. It wasn’t hard: at five foot one, she was shorter than an upright bass. And dressed up in her tidy black dress and stockings, with her straight brown hair drawn back into an immaculate bun, she seemed like a doll.

She spent ten minutes on scales, each one of them an immaculate staircase, the notes running on tiptoes to the heaven and then back down like so many ballerinas. “Why do you have to practice those?” I said. “You obviously know them already.”

“If I don’t practice them, they’ll get worse.” Her answer was terse; her chin moved against the chin rest when she spoke.  

“Pff. No, it’s like riding a bike.” The bald patch on the piano bench grew bigger. I peeled away another thin strip of vinyl.

Amanda removed her violin from her chin and, holding it by her side, turned to face me. “Oh, so you can still play guitar?”

“Well, no, but I don’t have that talent. You have talent. That’s something that can never leave you, Amanda. You’re always gonna know the music, deep in your soul.”

She rolled her eyes and looked away, raising the instrument to play once again. “You really don’t get it. You’re saying runners shouldn’t stretch before a race because they already know how.”

“Okay, okay, point taken.” Amanda had to have the lowest self-esteem of anyone I knew, besides myself. How could you be so talented and not know it? Had no one ever told her before how special she was? How unique?

I was silent for a while as she began to run through her audition piece. God, she sounded like someone in a movie.

“The beginning’s still out of tune,” she griped, and I couldn’t help smiling at her. How was she so humble? How could she nit-pick herself for flaws like this? Couldn’t she see that she was making music?

 

Amanda was scheduled to go backstage in five minutes.  “God, I’m just—I haven’t practiced this enough. I really haven’t.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked. The patch of foam was nearly the size of my palm now. “You practice five hours a day, Amanda. You’re going to do fine.”

“I haven’t gotten the cadenza up to tempo. The cadenza’s the most important part, and if I mess up the cadenza, I’m toast.” She’d been playing the cadenza for the last ten minutes. It sounded fine to me.

“But you’re talented,” I said. “Can’t you see it? You’re just… overflowing, spilling with talent. And that innate talent is going to come out just at the right moment, and the judges are all going to see how good you are and they’re going to be left speechless. Believe me.” I smiled. I didn’t have many chances to give motivational speeches, but I decided I was pretty good at them.

Amanda’s frown contorted further into a scowl. “You don’t get it,” she said. “You don’t get it at all!” And she stormed out of the practice room, leaving me alone, wondering what I’d said wrong.

 

I thought it was so beautiful, the way musicians experienced music. One time my buddy Mark and I were listening to Animal Collective while we were high, and I kept waiting for it to click. Mark got really into it, but I couldn’t. I mean, it was pretty cool, I guess. But I didn’t hear stuff the way musicians did. It was all just sound to me.  

Anyway, Amanda had some kind of connection with the music. Something deep in her soul. I could see it when she played, and I knew, I knew she just needed to—to tune in. To tune into that connection. She was too uptight, too insecure. But I believed in her.  

I took a seat in the back of the auditorium where the auditions were happening. There were only a few people in the auditorium: parents, mostly. There were a few people set up right in the middle, towards the front. They were all making marks on identical clipboards. I figured they were the judges.

The kid up first was okay, but he wasn’t really feeling the music like I knew Amanda would. He still sounded good, though. All that stuff sounds good to me.

He left, and I started to clap until I realized nobody else was. It was just dead silence in that auditorium, me and my loud hands and those judges and the big arching ceiling overhead. Then Amanda walked onstage.

I tried to give her a big two-thumbs-up, but she didn’t seem to see. She lifted her bow and began to play: long, mournful tones, thin as tightrope-wire. Every note warbled breathily. She closed her eyes, but I kept mine open, fixated on this tiny figure on the stage drawing such power from her instrument. She and the violin were one: I could feel it.

The piece became more frenzied, and her tiny face screwed up in concentration, bidding phrase after phrase to rise from her instrument. Then, she began to ascend: this was the cadenza. I recognized it. The strings seemed to vibrate into the stratosphere, all the way up, and Amanda’s fingers crept closer and closer up the board, higher and faster until—

until there was a noise like a very tiny chair scraping across a very tiny floor. She frowned, and tried again, going back down a few notes to make the ascent. The noise came again. I saw her lips move and her tiny, perfect eyebrows furrow.

She resumed playing, moving past the broken spot. The cadenza ended, and then, in its time, the piece. Amanda walked off the stage. There was silence. I felt my hands curl up where they rested on my knees.

 

I met back up with Amanda in the lobby, where audition hopefuls still milled about. She was staring resolutely at a spot on the floor. “You sounded great!” I told her.

“Shut up,” she said. “I ruined it.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” I said as we began walking back to the parking lot. “You were really, really good.”

“I flubbed the cadenza,” said Amanda, her voice breaking. “I flubbed the cadenza. I knew I hadn’t practiced it enough.”

“Don’t worry,” I told her. “I barely heard it. I doubt anyone noticed. Judges probably missed it.”

“Shut up!” she said. “You don’t get it at all. I had scholarships riding on this.”

“It’s not that bad,” I tried again.

“No,” she said, louder, the word breaking off into the beginnings of a sob. We arrived at my car. “Just don’t talk anymore, okay? Just—just don’t talk. Please.” She buried her face in her hands.

I drove us home in silence, wondering what I’d said wrong.

 


Caroline Galdi is trying really hard. She reads your tweets as @cyclostome

Flashes by Jamie Biggs

Flashes
Jamie Biggs

 

The stoplight was red. I stared out the window at the city park, past the railroad tracks, to where the trees were all silhouetted by the sun sinking deep behind them. They looked almost black now, and the branches stood stark against the last bit of daylight. I looked back in front of me, finding the light had turned green, but that was okay. There weren’t any cars waiting behind me.

The walk to the bar from the parking spot I found would take fifteen minutes. It was dead-of-winter cold in fall, wind stinging my skin. My jacket wouldn’t button any higher around my neck. I weaved through people on sidewalks, shoved my numb hands deeper in my pockets, and stared straight ahead as a man smoking a cigarette asked me if I had any change. Usually I walked slowly to the bar, contemplating turning back a handful of times before I ever even made it there, but the prospect of a heat-filled room propelled me forward.

“You made it!” Clay grinned when he saw me walking towards our table in the corner. I felt the warmth rush over me as I undid the top buttons of my jacket and slid onto the stool next to him.

“I always do,” I said.

Every Friday night, after work, the same bar—the four of us would meet up. Clay treated it like the highlight of his week, ending up too drunk to drive himself home half of the time. Devon and Catie saw it as their one night away from the baby. They’d have a drink—two if it’d been a rough week—and usually walk out of the bar shortly after ten. At this point, it was obligatory to me—like a contract I’d unintentionally entered into and didn’t have a good enough reason to break away from.

“Beer?” Devon asked.

I nodded. “Beer.” We walked over to the bar, and so the night went.

Drink after drink. Catie got promoted at work, so the first round was on Devon, but Clay and I both offered to buy. We were all finally at that point where buying a round of drinks for the table wouldn’t be a devastating hit to our wallets. I ran into a guy I’d had a class with in college on my way back from the bathroom—small talk ensued until I made up an excuse to walk away. There was a pretty girl in a purple shirt at the table to the left of us and I watched as a guy spilled his drink on her. She and her friends rushed off to the bathroom. Friday nights were a low budget movie, and I’d memorized the script a while ago.

I didn’t hate it, but I was bored—bored in a way that made me feel like there was something wrong with me. The people were all the same at night, and there was this look in their eyes that I couldn’t possibly have mirrored—even in the eyes of the people who were one drink away from being on the bathroom floor. This look of contentedness, whether it happy or sad. People were the same during the day, but it felt different to me at night. They were indistinguishable—all outlines and no real details, like the trees silhouetted at the park. Different and beautiful and boring all at once. I’d have a conversation with a girl and not be able to pick her out of a crowd five minutes later. I knew it was my fault.

Devon was asking me how my work week had been.

“It was fine,” I said, and there was nothing else to add. Four years in the same career and I had repeated the same static day at least five days a week for all of that time, ending each night with the knowledge that there was nothing else I would rather be doing, but that I didn’t want to be doing this either.

“How did that wedding you were shooting last weekend turn out?” he asked.

“Good. It was a small wedding. Short and simple,” I said.

Devon worked an office job and frequently expressed how jealous he was of me for having found bill-paying success in a career that allowed me to do something a little different each day. Freelance photography—it was what I had said I wanted to do even when we were young. At this point, I felt like there wasn’t an inch of downtown I hadn’t photographed, not a single couple left in the city that I hadn’t taken engagement pictures of—but there always ended up being something else or someone else.

I rushed to ask him about his week before he had the chance to question me further about mine. I’d already lived it. I didn’t want to relive the mundanity of it all through a recount.

Time ticked on. Catie started yawning. She and Devon hugged me goodbye, promising to see me next Friday. Maybe we could meet up for coffee one day this week, Catie suggested. Empty words—they never had that kind of extra time on their hands, and if they did, it went to the baby, as it should. But I said sure, knowing it didn’t matter.

Clay and I ended up playing pool. Neither of us had ever been any good at it, but it was the way we always wound down the night. He wasn’t all that drunk, but he was loud and talkative, telling me all about his week and the girl at his work and the new show he was watching. He thought I would like it.

“Hey, Ryan,” he said, the tone in his voice shifting. I looked up from the red felt fabric of the table and saw his face. “How are you doing?” It was that change in his expression, the way his gaze was intent on holding mine—he was asking a whole different question.

“I’m doing really well, actually,” I said.

“Yeah?”

I nodded. He took his shot.

“I just wonder, you know. And worry,” Clay said, something catching in his throat. “I still can’t believe it some days, man.”

“Me neither.”

“You must really miss him.”

“Yeah.” I gestured with the pool stick. “Eight ball. That pocket.”

My dad was great at pool. One of his greatest disappointments in life must have been when we went to a bar together for the first time after my twenty-first and he realized just how much I sucked. “Is it because you’re drunk?” he’d asked, looking dumbfounded, and I had laughed for the rest of the night.

I looked back at Clay after I missed the shot. “Hey, let me give you a ride home tonight, man. You drank a lot.”

He laughed. “What? No, I’m fine. You don’t need to do that.” He laid his pool stick on the table and demonstrated his unimpaired ability to walk a straight line. “I’m good to drive, officer.”

I knew he was fine. I’d seen him drink double what he’d had tonight and still drive home. “You should let me drive, Clay.”

“Really?” He suddenly looked like he was doubting himself. “Am I drunk? Do I seem that drunk?”

No. “Yes.”

Clay shrugged. “Whatever. Bring me back for my car in the morning?”

“Sure.”

For fifteen minutes we were in the cold, then we were finally back to my car, slamming the doors closed as quickly as we could. I maxed the heat, but my hands were still icy when I touched them to the steering wheel. Clay was rocking back and forth in the passenger seat, sitting on his hands, and loudly cursing the weather.

We were warm in just a couple of minutes. It always occurred to me how ungrateful I was for this. Like how I was never thankful for my health until I was sick—I never felt grateful for warmth until I was cold. So the car heated up, and normally I would have relaxed back into my seat, but I tried to hold onto that feeling of being cold and uncomfortable and frustrated. It only lasted a moment before it faded and I couldn’t feel anything. Clay was settled back in his seat, content, head leaning up against the window. He could fall asleep anywhere, and the fifteen minute drive back to the neighborhood we were both renting little houses in was more than enough time for him to knock out.

Normally I would have let him fall asleep.

“Clay,” I said.

He lifted his head. “Hmm?”

I had nothing to say. I pointed at the moon. “Is that a full moon?”

“Uh.” He leaned forward and squinted. “Looks close. Maybe not quite.”

“Yeah, I think you’re right.”

He made a noise of agreement. When I glanced over at him, his head was slumped back against the glass.

I sighed and kept driving further out of downtown. The stars were never visible around here, and tonight was no exception, but the moon stayed bright and high in the sky as I drove further away from all of the lights.

I remembered being young, leaning my head against the window in the backseat of my parent’s car, thinking that the moon was chasing after us. Everything felt fast-paced and exciting then. We were moving and the moon was racing to keep up, but now the clueless, childhood appeal of it had disappeared. The moon was there, static—it was all static. Moving, but barely. Sometimes it all felt as still as a photograph, like I was living in a frame and the world around me was frozen, unchanging.

I thought about the wedding from the weekend before. Weddings were supposed to be stressful to photograph—they were the definition of fast-paced. The couple usually requested that every second of the day be caught on camera. Somehow, I was never rushed. Each click of the camera felt unhurried, and when I went to develop the photos later, they appeared exactly how I remembered them in the moment—completely still, individual snapshots. Moment after dull moment being captured from a series of different angles. All of this black and white and smiling combining in front of my eyes until it turned into one easily displaceable snapshot in my memory.

“Your dad sang this song.” Clay speaking from the passenger seat almost made me jump. I looked over and his eyes were closed, but there was a small smile forming as he uncovered a memory. “He sang this at Devon and Catie’s wedding, right?”

I hadn’t even noticed that the radio was playing softly. I turned the volume up a notch and there it was—one of those songs I avoided now.

“Yeah, he did.”

“He was hilarious that night.” Clay yawned. “Well, to be fair, he was always pretty hilarious.”

I only took one picture that night. It was on my cell phone, it was blurry with a blinding flash, and I didn’t know I had taken it until I was scrolling through my phone a few days after the wedding and a picture of Clay passed out in the parking lot of the wedding venue appeared. My parents and Devon’s sister were posed around him, pointing and laughing. I remembered all of the important moments that I photographed in brief flashes—weddings, school portraits, maternity shoots—, but I remembered all of the important moments that I didn’t have a photographic record of with this intense clarity. I could see my dad, tie loose around his neck, throwing his head back and laughing after he stole the microphone from the wedding singer. I could see him holding his drink high up in the air, telling embarrassing high school stories about Devon and me. I could see him looking around the room, searching, until his eyes caught mine and he grinned.

I could see him in May, in his hospice bed. I could see it in my mind like it was happening in real time, right in front of me. The smell of the room, the sound of the nurses voice, the pattern of the wallpaper—all recorded in my mind, ready to run on a loop at any given moment.

“You must really miss him,” Clay said again. “I miss him.”

How was I supposed to explain to Clay that I had sat there for days, listening to his breathing slow—this horrible, unforgettable noise—and then pick back up, wishing that he could just hurry up and die so that I could start grieving? Had I known that every moment from then on would feel like it did—like I was constantly looking through a lens, unable to commit to or feel present in anything I experienced—then maybe I would have clung on to that moment and willed him to keep suffering, so that I could keep feeling like my life was more—more than just flashes of moments in time that leave me with a black and white wall full of these pointless, empty frames.

Sometimes I would close my eyes and wonder if I was even missing anything. The world seemed motionless when my eyes were open. Like now—I was driving, but how long had it been? I knew from the clock on the dash that we had probably only been driving for about ten minutes, but it could have been hours. My shoot from earlier in the day, the conversations I’d had with Devon and Catie in the bar—they felt so distant, but they had felt distant when they were happening too. Just flashes of happenings. I could close my eyes and it would just be another flash.

I could close my eyes, but Clay was beside me. It would just be the shutter of the lens, and then I would open my eyes.

I could close my eyes.

Ryan.”

Suddenly, it was slow: My eyes shot open and there were headlights blinding me. Clay’s hands were grabbing for the wheel, frantic. I found the brake. The car laid on their horn as they skidded past us and we came to an abrupt, crooked stop. My headlights were trained on a house. There was a porch swing—someone was sitting there in the dark, smoking a cigarette, staring at me.

“Ryan,” Clay was saying, but his voice sounded muffled. My heart was pounding in my ears. “What happened? Did you fall asleep, man? We were just talking. Ryan, weren’t we just talking?”

“Yeah. We were just talking.”

When I pulled into his driveway a few minutes later, he was still asking if I was okay and what had happened. I must have dozed off, I kept saying. Every few seconds he would hold up a space between his thumb and his index finger, illustrating how much distance had been between my car and the other car on the road.

“That was scary, Ryan,” he said, unbuckling his seatbelt.

Scary. He was right. It had been scary. I was scared. It was replaying in my mind—each distinct second—with a vividness that made my pulse quicken.

“Are you sure you’re okay to drive home? You could always stay here and go home in the morning.”

“I’m okay.”

“If you say so.” He pushed open the door and climbed out, shaking his head as he did. Cold air was rushing in, but he leaned back in to look at me for a moment. “Well, shoot me a text when you get home, buddy. Please?”

“I will.”

“Alright. Thanks for the ride.”

My heart was still pounding. “No, man. Thank you.”

I fumbled with my keys in the dark when I got home. Once inside, I went around turning on all of the lights until I got to my office. The walls were lined with pictures from years of shoots. I stood at my desk, staring at the ones above my computer. They were all black and white, 5×7’s, matted on the same white background. Couples and families and babies, weddings and parties and all of these milestone moments.

None of them were mine.

“Where am I?” my dad had joked the first time he had come over to check out my new place. He had circled the room the same way I was now, leaning in to look closer at certain pictures. “Where are you?”

“These are just from work.”

“That’ll get depressing,” he’d said.

It had been depressing then, but now I was looking around and I couldn’t breathe with all of these strangers eyes on me. All of these important moments that I had observed, but that didn’t belong to me in any way, surrounding me. I tried to live in them, imagine myself there, but they weren’t mine. I’d always felt this way, but then I had let that feeling start to seep—to infect all of my moments.

I logged onto my computer and started scrolling back through my photo library. One year ago—there was Clay, passed out in the parking lot. My dad’s eyes were red from the flash. I printed it in color and went around the room, tearing each black and white photo down, throwing them into a pile in the center of the room. When the picture finished printing, I taped it above my computer, sat on the floor, and looked up at it.


Jamie Biggs is Gibson’s owner. Gibson is a three-year-old Border Collie. He’s a good boy.