Kathryn Holzman

2021, Fiction

The Aquarium

Even with the classroom windows closed, Aron could still smell the smoke. Off in the distance, the Los Padres National Forest smoldered.

In front of the class, Maya was reading her essay aloud. “What I did over the summer.” Balancing on one tanned foot, she read. “In August, my family visited the Monterey Aquarium.” She didn’t look up from the hand-written page. “The jellyfish had this eerie glow. They kind of slithered through the water.” Her legs were chestnut brown, and she wore an anklet of tiny shells. Her hair, longer than it had been in the spring, was bleached blond, and she was a good foot taller than most of the sixth-grade boys. Her t-shirt, imprinted with an octopus’s tentacles, did not hide the buds of beginning breasts.

“Through the Underwater Explorers experience, I scuba-dived with a guide.” Maya spoke as if no one would believe her. “Just on the surface? It was amazing. Like a whole other world.”   

Aron, short, chubby, and resigned to always being so, studied the girl. He imagined her floating on the surface of the aquarium’s great tide pool, her maturing body gleaming like the jellyfish as it lengthened and floated over the treasures below. 

 “Thank you, Maya,” Ms. Catcher said. 

Their teacher, all the children knew, was no longer the principal’s “main squeeze.”

The mothers talked of nothing else in the supermarket. “What the hell did she expect?” Aron’s mother seemed elated when Liz Pritchard told her that the well-loved Mr. Gray “had moved on.” Aron sprouted goose pimples in the chill of the frozen foods aisle while the two women gloated. 

“What did she expect?” Mrs. Pritchard said. “Ms. Catcher never had a chance. All wide-eyed and fresh out of college. Looks only get you so far.” 

There wasn’t a thing in Mrs. Pritchard’s shopping cart that Aron wanted to eat. He was glad he had been assigned to the scorned teacher’s class, hoped that humiliation might make her more sympathetic than his fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Banks. He had hated Mr. Banks, who yelled “Man up” whenever Aron spaced out on the soccer field or ended up in tears after yet another recess session of his classmates’ taunting.

Aron was getting up the nerve to ask his dad if they could visit the aquarium. He longed to float. Leave the weight of his clunky body behind. Alone in bed at night, he imagined his breasts swelling. He avoided touching those parts of his body that felt like they belonged to someone else.

“Fifty dollars,” his father exploded when Aron asked. “You’ve got to be kidding me.” “The beach is free,” his father said, “go find your own damn fish.” His dad knew he hated fishing, the stink of the rotting bait, the long boring hours of sitting on the pier waiting for a nibble that never came. When he was younger, his father had dragged his two sons to Santa Cruz where the two boys had to sit with him on the rank pier for an entire afternoon. Aron’s brother, bored, bouncing his sneakers into the pier to the rhythm of his favorite rock song. TODAY is GONNA be the DAY that they THROW it back to YOU. Aron poked among the bait worms, letting them curl like rings around his finger. Their father stared into the gray waves without saying a word except “fuck” when fish eluded his hook.

No matter how many times Principal Adams gave his welcoming speech about new beginnings, Aron knew that some things never changed. Some people could go to the aquarium and some people could not. Some people got what they want. Others, namely him and maybe Ms. Catcher, did not.

He wrote his essay on a camping trip his family had taken to Big Sur. During the two weeks of his father’s July vacation, the family erected tents on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Their campsite abutted a large open field hidden by a stand of oak trees. His parents set up lawn chairs and spent the afternoons reading magazines and drinking beer. His brother, Dave, a high school sophomore, jogged in the morning along the beach and spent the afternoon hanging out with surfers. Every evening his father roasted hamburgers over a grill balanced on two large rocks over the open campfire. His brother would burp his satisfaction and then disappear to smoke grass with his new water-logged companions.

This was before the fire started. The blaze that broke out at the end of July and was expected to burn for several months before full containment.

Reservations, months in advance, were required to camp at the state park. Some campgrounds had bathrooms, electrical hookups, and barbecues, but of course, his dad wasn’t about to pay for anything he could get for free. “It’s about time you boys learned how to piss in the woods.” His dad was glad to show them how. A life lesson, he claimed. During their two weeks of camping, Aron’s mother disappeared several times a day into the woods with a trowel and a roll of toilet paper. She was the one who warned the boys about poison oak, showed them how to identify the leaves. She told them to be careful. The beach had a wicked undertow, but neither parent walked down the steep path to the beach to watch them swim.

In his essay, Aron didn’t describe the family’s drive through the backcountry, the search for an out-of-the-way spot. He didn’t include their walk through the woods, each of them carting a cardboard box full of supplies. He left out his mother’s silence as she carried the heavy grocery bags. His brother’s blood-shot eyes. His father’s declaration that “These redwoods have been here forever” as they tromped through the undergrowth. “They are ours as much as anybody else’s.”

He did describe their campsite, the wonder of looking at the stars at night, the roar of the waves, and the thrill of body surfing. He made it sound as if these were things they did as a family when the best part of the trip was the freedom, the days he walked the beach on his own. 

When the class took a break for lunch, Aron watched Maya take a pink lunch box decorated with stickers of mermaids from the overhead shelf. The other girls’ lunchboxes had pop stars, the unblemished faces of boy bands. The girls tittered as they headed outside. Unlike the boys, they touched each other, hugged each other in ecstatic greetings, held hands as they crossed the field. 

Aron avoided the boys who headed for the blacktop, looking for basketballs to bounce, for footballs to kick. He distanced himself from the others, walking behind the girls who paid no attention to him. At the edge of the field, large blackberries hung from the bushes. In their shade, Aron sat down and began chewing on an apple, far from the school’s brick buildings and the noise of the playground. He was thinking about Maya’s description of the aquarium. 

Maya had described jellyfish, ghostly transparent creatures that changed shape in the water as if constantly reinventing themselves. Their colors, pink, and purple, glowed like the outlines of supernatural creatures.

Even on the playground, smoke from the fires irritated his lungs. Didn’t it bother the other kids as they played? “You’re too sensitive,” his mom said, the only one in his life who said it with tenderness. He wondered if the aquarium provided snorkel equipment, how it felt to float on the surface and see an alternative world underneath. As he ate his tuna sandwich, he searched for Maya on the playground. He had so many questions.

#

“The aquarium?” Maya suggested. Ms. Catcher added the suggestion to the list of field trips on the blackboard. Maya was careful not to look at Aron after she had raised her hand. Both knew that if his classmates realized it was his suggestion, the class would vote for one of the other Monterey locales: the artichoke farm, the tide pools, the Presidio, or the even the cannery.

“Thank you, Maya,” Ms. Catcher said. In two weeks of school, Ms. Catcher had yet to determine the cause of the titters that greeted her every lesson. 

Behind her back, the boys had endless conversations about what she had done with the principal before he had “moved on.” Alan Pritchard went as far as calling her a slut, echoing his mother’s words no doubt.

 Only Maya and Aron viewed their teacher as a likely ally. Their friendship, begun the first day of class and pursued on the far side of the field and in the library after lunch, was as much about their outsider status as it was about their common passions. Maya was uncomfortable around her classmates, self-conscious about her long legs, agonized by the recent changes in her body. She told Aron, as they sat on the bench that her new height embarrassed her. He noticed that she now walked with a slouch.

Aron wanted to be like his new friend more than anything in the world. He grilled her about the aquarium until the day she promised to suggest it as a destination for the class trip. If he had not been so uncomfortable with his own betrayal of a body, he would have hugged her in gratitude.

#

Aron’s dad said the firefighters were heroes. “These guys ain’t pussies,” he said. “Hell, they put their lives at risk every day.” A bulldozer driver died when his vehicle overturned. It had been on the evening news.

“They’re just trying to help people,” Aron’s mom said.

“I heard,” his brother said, “that a group they rescued claimed they were backcountry hikers. It turned out that they were actually growers.”

“Marijuana?” Aron asked.

“No, tulips.” His brother rolled his eyes.

“Watch it,” his dad said.

The fire kept burning and burning. By September thirty-four homes had been torched. 350 families evacuated. 44,000 acres of forested destroyed.

Aron couldn’t imagine putting his life at stake. One thing he knew for sure — his dad would be the last one to risk it.

#

Ms. Catcher announced the class would go to the Presidio for the fall class trip. A cheer went up from the boys who had lobbied for the exhibit on military development in the region. 

Aron couldn’t believe that his teacher had not stood up to the boys. They didn’t even like her. They did not respect her. “What about the aquarium? Wouldn’t that be more educational?”

Alan booed. “Girly boy wants to swim with the fishes.” His posse tittered.

“Shut up,” Aron mumbled.

“Boys, enough of that,” Ms. Catcher snapped. “I’m sorry, Aron. This is a case where the majority rules.”

At lunch, Maya told him she was sorry. 

“Everybody laughs at her,” he said. 

 “They’ll get over it.”

Now, when he walked down the hallways of the school, the boys whispered, “The majority… the majority…” Still, Maya’s company was better than the alternative. At least, unlike his brother whose only advice was to “Whoop them,” she understood that he had no desire to confront the boys that taunted him.

#

On the evening news, the sheriff announced that an illegal, unattended campfire had caused the wildfires.

“Yeah, likely story,” Aron’s Dad changed the channel. “Who would be dumb enough to leave a campfire smoking in the woods?”

On the TV screen, the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond drowned out his snarled question. Raymond (who everybody loved) complained about his mother. His brother towered over him, a cop, but nevertheless a mama’s boy.

Aron’s mom said nothing at all.

Aron’s brother was out with friends, probably getting high.

The permission slip for the class trip was sitting on the kitchen counter. Aron was hoping his parents would forget to sign it. The last thing he wanted was to traipse behind Alan’s dad listening to the military history of the Presidio. Presidio was Spanish for “royal fort” Ms. Catcher had told the class. Alan acted like he was the prince.

Royal fart was more like it.

Aron wondered if anybody in his class remembered his essay. Did they recall his description of the campfire on top of the cliff, the view of the stars?  Would anybody put two and two together? Would Maya see the connection as she relaxed at home with parents who would take her anyplace she chose? Would Ms. Catcher, awake at night smarting from the daily ridicule of her students, suddenly have a revelation?

It only took a match, a spark to grow into a conflagration. No one, not even real heroes, could stop the fire once it began. Only jellyfish, floating above the ocean floor, were safe. He had no idea how he would ever get to see them.

#

Aron practiced talking like Maya.

“I think I know who started the fire?” he said, looking into his bedroom mirror, brushing his blond bangs out of his eyes. His mother had been after him to get a haircut, but he loved when the hair hung like curtains on both sides of his face. His voice was still high. It was easy to imitate the girl’s reticence. He liked the way she sounded, breathy and soft-spoken. Just speaking in her voice made him feel lighter.

“An illegal campsite?” his heart pounded. He located the site where his family had camped on a map and wrote down the longitude, mapped the latitude “There is a boy in my class? He says his father took his family camping?”

How right this felt. How easily he could become her.

The police only said that the anonymous informant was a young girl. She provided surprisingly accurate information.

#

 The day the police picked up Aron’s father for questioning, Aron was on the class trip, lagging at the end of a parade of antsy students touring the Presidio Museum. He walked side by side with Maya and amused himself by matching her step, studying her posture, and imitating the sway of her hips, the way her arms swung at her side. When she laughed, he waited for a glimpse of her pink tongue. He practiced crinkling his eyelids like she did.

Mr. Pritchard strutted in front of the class, all authority and supreme self-confidence. Behind him, Alan, a miniature officer in training. Ms. Catcher faded like a shadow at the general’s side. When the doorways were narrow, the large man stepped aside to let her pass. He took her elbow to guide her to the next exhibit, placed his hammy hand on her back. The gesture made Aron squirm. He wanted the teacher to shake off the General’s solicitous touch. 

One by one, the general ushered them into the Old Monterrey jail. “In its entire history,” he boomed, “No one ever escaped these thick granite walls.” 

At the end of the jail’s central corridor, a solitary beam of sunshine intruded through a window set high in the door. Aron asked Maya to look out and tell him if she could glimpse the ocean through the bars.

Standing on her tiptoes, she squinted. “I think so?”  But he knew the sea was out there. Waves crashing onto the beach in cycles of thirteen, inevitable, unstoppable.  


Kathryn Holzman’s short fiction has appeared in over twenty online literary magazines and print anthologies. She is the author of a collection of short fiction, Flatliners, Shire Press 2019. Her first novel Real Estate was published by Propertius Press in Fall, 2020.  Her second novel The Cost of Electricity will be published in 2023. You can find her online here.

Michael Chang

2021, Poetry

STUDENT-ATHLETE’S COLLEGE RECRUITMENT GUIDE

lance: buyer of track pants & athletic socks

perfect loved boy give me a future

i like ur boy traits: ur too-thick ache’s elations

we can look at some terrifying art inside my mouth

young boy enters a dancehall feet loose

he fixes cocktails blindfolded

runs down the wooden escalator clack clack clack

david archuleta lookalike stares the whole night

why do i read the right-hand-side first

is it my chinese dna

if i am responsible

it is for everything

hardy explorers on borrowed time

ur dukedom with fairy lights

the mother of all orgasms

still unsure how we were led astray

is it possible i prefer ur breath over mine

nuance is poisonous

let’s talk generalities

res ipsa loquitur: the thing speaks for itself

[comments turned off]


冷战 COLD WAR

I dream that Rumsfeld says “that’s all” to me & return to my desk, sulking

I wake up to find a female ghost on my chest, adamant abt popping a squat.  I call out for my personal Jesus

I wake up next to a cheesesteak.  They leave

Self-care is exhausting.  I need to be taken care of

Most days I put on a good face, a werewolf

Moment of weakness: slip under a friend’s tongue, liking it

Surprisingly pamplemousse, suddenly Domingo

The last time I see Mathias is in Tribeca.  He fights w/ his girlfriend over me

One day I will learn to stare w/o longing

A lot can happen in a month

Disavow me daddy

This poet has no intention

I’m living out the logical conclusion of Meet the Fockers

Your mouth reminds me of goodbye


FREAKS TO THE FRONT

i can’t remember how to write a good poem

heidegger says writing a poem is making a voyage of discovery

i don’t know what a packrat is but i’d like to be one

look at this hymn to possibility

ur paper-tiger confidence

our fluctuations

their ongoingness

regrets, we have too many

insistent as the low rumble of a maserati

were u at dewey’s coffee, admiring vanilla boys while waiting for ur vanilla drinks

sorry i was busy putting trash in my body

when i’m gone

will u be okay

or o.k.

or ok


MICHAEL CHANG is the author of several collections of poetry, including DRAKKAR NOIR (winner of the Bateau Press BOOM Chapbook Contest), CHINATOWN ROMEO (Ursus Americanus Press, 2021), as well as BOYFRIEND PERSPECTIVE (Really Serious Literature, 2021). Tapped to edit Lambda Literary’s Emerge anthology, their poems have been nominated for Best New Poets, Best of the Net, & the Pushcart Prize. In 2021, they were awarded the Poetry Project’s prestigious Brannan Prize.

Virginia Lee Wood

2021, Essays

GHOST COLLAGE

When Dad was very sick, in the last winter we could keep him, a black snake came into the house and Mom said, “That’s his Dad,” and that we needed to catch it. Coming to take him before we were ready to let him go; it lay on the floor beside his hospital bed like a dog.

_________________________

Snakes come silently into my house and hide. I have been catching them. In Texas I am living adjacent to a drainage field, slightly below ground level. Snakes tuck up in the places where the laminate flooring doesn’t quite touch the wall. It’s always dark in the house. The gaps around the doorframe shelter them. 

_________________________

An owl arrived in the month when Dad was going. There had been another owl for years living around the house. A large female barred owl who screamed perfectly and only in the middle of the night, when even though you knew what she was, it sounded like a woman crying in the woods. Whenever she called, my dad would stop what he was doing and call out, “Do you hear that? It’s her.” The new one and the old one hooted together for a few weeks, and then the elder female left for good. He doesn’t know how to be an owl. He sits outside the kitchen window every day, looking off. We talk about him. Dad, are you OK? We’re doing fine. Why do you keep coming here and sitting there like that?

_________________________

Mom tells me many times a story about a snake lady. She says it’s true, it’s fiction, it’s true. “I told you it was made up because it was scaring you too much.” When my mom was in the fifth grade in Chinhae with a different name, she looked up as she crossed a creek bed and saw in broad daylight a woman in a tree. Long black hair. A sense of knowing what she was looking at that doesn’t need validating, except that she learned a woman had been hung there, and that other people knew about it. The next day she had to walk back the same way, and an enormous black snake was hanging there.

_________________________

Getting out of bed, I put my foot down and something cold settles against it.

_________________________

I keep thinking, not only does time keep going on but the things that occupied you tend to become normal and part of you. And it’s cruel. Struggling moment to moment with the searing pain of fresh loss works its way into the texture of the skin you wear. And you lose the activity of struggling to breathe, which you did every day. Having to find out who you are again with grief stitched in tiny knots all over your flesh. When I open my mouth now, the loss is part of my tongue. There is no need to struggle with language. Now what will I do with my time? Looking for you everywhere. My grey house slippers. The way I look at my car out the window, and every animal is a ghost of someone I know. When hail falls, I look at it through the blinds. Looking forward to things so that I will not be here. I want to eat things that taste like fresh lemon. I want to see flowers that are very green and smell wet sidewalks. Knots between fingers and eyelashes. Wanting to see and smell the dirt. The ghosts are everywhere.

_________________________

On my countertop, the mirror that hung in my Dad’s office for forty years. It saw him for so long, going in and out of the room. If ghosts are the energy we leave behind, here is an object with an aura. I don’t hang it up. I know that I will long to see him behind me, somewhere in the background. 

_________________________

I’m telling Mom about the house finch with a flushed throat that has been tricking me into thinking it’s the smoke alarm. “It goes ‘peep’!” “Oh,” she says, “I’m so glad you told me that. We have the same bird here.”

_________________________

There is a dream that on the way to work, I feel something tickling my arm. A large wasp, crawling, yellow and black. I  realize that there are wasps crawling out of my hair. Flying away. 

_________________________

What if, Dad, you and I’d had a chance to talk about what happened when I was finally old enough to ask? There are the possibilities of what might have been, and I think poisonously of these versions of us. So much happened when I was coming up that prevented us connecting at all. And you didn’t have a Dad to teach you how to talk to your kids. What to do when your kids’ mouths are jammed with excuses, and explanations, and pain. What my brother did to my sister and I, you shut down and I think I get it, you know, but what do I know? I close my mouth over those questions. 

  I look around and they aren’t as urgent to me as they were when the loss was fresh. Pain in my teeth. They’re like watching a snake struggling on my bathroom tile in the night. They’re going into the kitchen and finding a large enough Tupperware, tenderly slipping a birthday card between the snake and the floor. Remembering you saying, “It’s just a snake. Look how beautiful he is.” Yes. But why is it that I have to remember you this way and all of this has happened to us? How come when I have a question I can’t call you? That some unspoken understanding about love couldn’t grow between us? That now when I’m walking your footsteps in my career, there’s nobody and I feel that nothing that is really a hole? 

_________________________

Open the door to my place and there is a tiny garter snake there on the threshold. I hold the door open. Go home. The outside is right there. Do not watch the sunlight like this. Go on out. I reach down my car key to scare her onto the pavement, and she slips away back into the house.

_________________________

Mom says the wasp dream is a great one. That all of the things I suffer under are crawling out and headed away on the wind. While Dad was sleeping, bedridden and always in view of the trees he chose to build this house under, Mom and I used to go down the dirt driveway, picking up seeds that had fallen. We threw them into the fallow field. Listened to the owl calling out to its elder. How are the trees? I ask her.

_________________________

“They are small, but they are growing.”


Virginia Lee Wood is a Korean American writer and holds a Doctorate in Creative Writing from the University of North Texas, as well as an MFA from Hollins University. Her work appears most recently in The Southern Review, Sweet, Pleiades, Hobart, and elsewhere. She is an Assistant Professor of English at West Chester University.

Mialise Carney

Blog

THE NIGHT THE COWS GOT LOOSE

I wasn’t at Uncle Drew’s by choice—Mom sent me here to spend the fall at a new school, to work on the old family farm and learn about real hardship. Now instead of spending my weekends watching reality tv and scrolling through Instagram until my vision blurs, I rinse warm eggs under a cold, rust-speckled faucet and listen to coyotes howl at night. I can’t help but imagine what it would feel like to be crushed between their teeth.

Tonight, I press my forehead against the cool dusty window in my makeshift bedroom and watch the stalks of corn stand silent and still like sentinels. A shadow, a sweeping mass, slowly trickles into view and I strain until I can make out the outlines of cow silhouettes moving against the stalks. They look so careful that I feel embarrassed, like I’m intruding on something sacred.

I haven’t seen the cows out on the land at night before, I mostly see them inside the barn, cramped beneath heavy beams, dark eyes blinking past me like something was lurking just over my shoulder. I flinched away from them, scared of their birch-colored teeth and how they chewed endlessly like it soothed them. It made me nauseous to see their hot bloated bellies pressed up against each other and sometimes I felt like I was the one being squeezed and suffocated in the hot lowing smell and not them.

Drew said they liked it, that they were herd animals and being so close made them feel safe. He said I wouldn’t understand, being so young, that this type of thing was ancient and passed down through generations of farmers who taken time to study the earth. It was another thing I wouldn’t understand.

When I got out of inpatient, Mom said I couldn’t go back to school. She didn’t ask me if school had been the issue, I think she watched one movie about bullying on the Hallmark channel and assumed that’s what my problem was. She talked the whole car ride home about where I would go, what I would learn from real people who did real labor while I tried to bite my hospital bracelet off, the thin plastic catching between my front teeth.

Drew calls me his little TB patient like I need fresh air to rattle out all the dust and dirt that had collected inside of me. Maybe that’s what Mom thought too when she sent me here with two days warning. But I think she worried I was contagious more than she worried about me breathing clearer. When I was on the ward, she only visited twice, and she looked so awful there, fake cheery and red-lipsticked, her limbs pulled in tight like if anything touched her, she’d catch a plague. She’s the principal at my old school but hopes to run for a higher office now that she doesn’t have me to hold her back.

Now I go to school with kids I don’t know who have filled up their friend group quota since third grade. After dinner, sometimes I go to the cows and sit in the barn beneath one glistening, buzzing lightbulb, close my eyes, and try to relax into the swaying. And even though I’m surrounded by the herd, the shifting, moaning herd, even though Drew told me I should feel safe, and huddled, and warm, I feel even lonelier than the third-floor school bathroom where that girl from homeroom walked in on me. The girl that kept asking if I was okay while we waited for Mom to get out of her meeting, while we waited for the EMTs to come and scrape me off the wet tile floor. And it’s so quiet, even with the rustle of bodies against bodies, even with the howl of the coyotes, I can still hear the hollow rattle of the pill bottle when Mom snatched it from the cup of my hand, the one I took from her bedside drawer that morning, freshly refilled on the first of the month. Sometimes I can feel the cold breeze against my face as she paced, clutching the bottle against her soft baby pink sweater, how it warmed against her chest while I shivered on the floor.

It’s a messy thing, a baby cow, all legs and desperation, not yet having learned the grace of their mothers. My first week here Drew had two baby cows, one right after the other. They wouldn’t let me see the birthings, but I got to see them in the days after up in the field with the herd, staggering after their mothers. I admired one mother’s coolness, how in the gleaming greenness of the morning she could turn to her calf, knock it over with one swift nudge of her face and continue moving on after the herd without looking back.

I can’t see the baby cows tonight, but I hope they’re in there, somewhere, pressed up against the warm bloated bellies of their mothers. I hope they didn’t get left behind in that cold creaking barn without any light, except for maybe the moon pressing through the gaps between the rusting tin shingles. I hope they weren’t left alone with no understanding of how to get out.

Drew knocks on my bedroom door, opening it just a crack. His long face is darkened and backlit, the orange hall light haloing his head.

“I saw your light,” he says. “Everything alright?”

I wonder what he would do if I told him. Would he run out into the uneven night, pull a lasso from his belt? Would he call to the boys even though they’ve all gone home for the night? Would he blame me? Me, who did the last feeding, who went to the barn and sat beneath the glow of that one, sparkling lightbulb, and stared into their eyes, huge and glossy and wet with a sadness I could feel, raw and heavy in my gut, like I’d been given something I wasn’t sure how to carry. Me, who’d begged them to tell me how to feel it, how to feel warm and safe against other bodies, how to comfort myself with the chewing instead of gnawing through my tongue.

Do I tell him I pushed the gate open, that I guided them out into the cold open night?

I shake my head. I say nothing. Drew nods and closes the door.

I watch the cows, that shapeless shifting mass move through the grass and disappear past the corn. And I swear I can feel it, that ancient understanding. I can feel it warm like lightening bugs crawling underneath my skin.


Mialise Carney is a writer and MFA student at California State University, Fresno. She is an editor at The Normal School, and her writing has appeared in Hobart, Maudlin House, and Atlas and Alice, among others. Read more of her work here.

Margaret Emma Brandl

2021, Fiction

WALKER BRENTSON

In the gym before first period, Walker Brentson appears midcourt like a dadgum miracle.

It’s been seven weeks since anyone last saw him. First we didn’t say much, just that he must be sick. It had been three days before we noticed at all. Second week, we thought he had the flu. Third week—maybe chicken pox? By the fourth week we assumed he had diseases no one knew what they were—scarlet fever, whooping cough, shingles. In the fifth week on a Tuesday Jessie McMillan became inconsolable in third-period Spanish because she believed Jesus had given her a sign that Walker was dead. That dampened the speculation, but by Wednesday the following week we were all trying to guess at how—a falling piano. A steamroller accident. A giant hole in the earth that opened up beneath his bedroom in the middle of the night. Sinkholes: they’re a real thing, mostly in Florida. Look it up.

Earlier this week, Walker Brentson was practically myth. We’d spent our mornings before the bell questioning whether he’d ever existed, if the locker between Stacy Vader’s and Hunter Boudreaux’s had ever been assigned to anyone at all. If maybe we’d just imagined his name, a collective hallucination, like the girls who all laughed so much they got burned for being witches. It’s so bad we almost don’t recognize him at all, squinting as he makes his way in the far door, straight from the car-drop-off line. But there he is, lo and behold, Walker-fudging-Brentson in all his four-foot-eleven glory, brandishing a single crutch like a butterfly net, hobbling with one foot clad only in a sock.

“Walker Brentson!” someone shouts, and at once we’re on our feet, giving him a hero’s welcome. We stomp the bleachers, hoot and holler and clap. The teachers don’t know how to stop us. Someone from pep squad invents a rhythm: “Wal-ker Wal-ker Brent-son. Wal-ker Wal-ker Brent-son.”

It’s so loud we almost miss the bell, but then the teachers are shooing us on our way. All day we call to him in the halls: “Heyyy, Walker!” or “What’s up, Walker?” or enthusiastic clapping to the rhythm we made—“Wal-ker Wal-ker Brent-son. Wal-ker Wal-ker Brent-son.” But by the time we’re all loaded onto the buses and headed home, there are whispers. Doesn’t he seem—I don’t know—smaller? Wasn’t his hair a different shade of red? It’s crazy, but does anyone else remember him as taking fourth-period math, not fifth?

We become a nuisance. Our parents’ phones won’t stop ringing. Walker Brentson used to write with his right hand. He used to be allergic to cheese. The patch of freckles on his chin used to have a different shape. By the time we’re all forced to go to bed, we’ve created a phone chain: Hunter Boudreaux to Jessie McMillan to Mallory Evans to me, to Stacy Vader to Jagger Bryan to Brittany Bloom. And it goes on, and we’ve got theories: alien abduction. Doppelganger. Evil clone. Yeah there’s a sheep, and cloning isn’t instant, but who’s to say there wasn’t another Walker all along? A different Walker, with modifications?

We’re tired of things changing, of going from one house with both parents in it to two separate apartments, different sides of town, left my math book at Dad’s, forgot my clarinet at Mom’s. Tired of trying to do math with letters instead of numbers, tired of replacing the old ways with the new ones. We’re sick and tired of taking each year the new version of the standardized test, being told next year you’ll get to skip it but never getting to that “next year.” We’ve started resenting, just a little, that our teachers change their names when they get married. We hate if one of them gets a haircut, changes her style. When second period is shortened for a surprise assembly, we’re poised to revolt. So maybe we’re wrong about Walker, but what we know is this: something has changed.

Next morning we see Walker Brentson and none of us trust him. When he sweeps into the gym, waving his crutch around like a fricking tennis player, his brow crumples at the lack of reaction. He tries to sit by Hunter Boudreaux, but Hunter disappears to the bathroom until the bell rings. In the hall after first period I see him, Walker Brentson, trying to get the attention of anyone who will listen. Then I look away—before he can see me back.


Margaret Emma Brandl is the author of the novella Tuscaloosa (Or, In April, Harpies) (Bridge Eight Press ’21). Her other writing has appeared in journals such as Gulf CoastThe Cincinnati ReviewYalobusha ReviewPithead Chapel, and CHEAP POP. She earned her PhD at Texas Tech University and her MFA at Notre Dame, and she currently teaches at Austin College.

William Fargason

2021, Poetry

WHEN THE COP TELL US

to call our parents we do: we had been caught
drinking Smirnoff Green Apple behind

the Hoover Met. Then the cop tells us
he would’ve taken us in, my friend and I,

if we looked more scummy. At seventeen,
I believed this to be luck, as one might

believe the rain stopping right when you walk
to your car, or a string of green lights, I believed

that where we parked my friend’s truck
in the dark of that parking lot was a safe place

to drink on a Wednesday night, our two outlines
slumped against the truck bed throwing

the empty bottles into the edge of the woods.
Now, I see there is no luck in these situations:

we were white, and so was the cop
with his shining bald white head. If we’d been

Black we wouldn’t have been given the chance
to call our parents, we wouldn’t have been given

anything at all. And so we walked free. For almost
a decade later I believed in luck, in what

I thought we got ourselves out of, not realizing
our skin had opened an escape hatch

and would again and again and again.


ELEGY FOR ANOTHER LATE-NIGHT PHONE CALL

Another drop in the bucket, how he
asked how the weather was

up here, said words.
I stopped therapy, I told him.

We never saw the same sun
the same. Schooldays we wouldn’t

talk more than a glance
when he entered the room,

eyes like a lighthouse beacon.
I was the rocks, or he was, one of us

crashing into the other. Now older,
I have to check each stove knob

three times before I can leave
my house. Father, your hands

were storms. Have I only
imagined you were ever there?

I’m trying to understand.
Father, I forgive you

or I don’t. If I say I’m coming home,
please leave the porch light on.


William Fargason is the author of Love Song to the Demon-Possessed Pigs of Gadara (University of Iowa Press, April 2020), and the winner of the Iowa Poetry Award. His poetry has appeared in The Threepenny ReviewNew England ReviewBarrow StreetPrairie SchoonerRattleThe Cincinnati ReviewNarrative, and elsewhere. He earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Maryland and a PhD in poetry from Florida State University. He lives with himself in Sparks Glencoe, Maryland, where he serves as the poetry editor at Split Lip Magazine.

Steven Espada Dawson

2021

THERE’S A DONUT SHOP IN OJAI, CALIFORNIA

that lets you smoke cigarettes. My brother
exhaled through the fingers of a bear

claw. Our last breakfast together is still
caught in my molars. I ash its memory

like Parliaments. He told me the joke
about Noah. How he always kept the skunks

in a lifeboat, dragging behind the Ark.
In that booth we were sacred, holding

our worst selves behind us—Brian
held a glazed ring above his head.

It glistened. That half-eaten halo.


Steven Espada Dawson is from East Los Angeles and lives in Austin. He is the son of a Mexican immigrant and a 2021 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenburg Fellow. His recent poems appear in The Adroit JournalBest New PoetsGulf CoastKenyon Review OnlineSplit Lip Magazine, and Waxwing.

leena aboutaleb

2021, Poetry

ontologies

I exist until I do not. we are full until hunger calls. I was raised anexoric
so I ignore the phone. spread olive oil on throat, a trick
to keep the hunger distracted. my aunts teach me epistemology.
we are altered. I spent years wishing for my body to go missing.
I felt cheated by fate, as if I should be spared from suffering.
if I am to endure tragedy, give me a home. I became
grateful when men desired me, opening their mouths to eat. I
wished they could erase me. I became
grateful when my brother died & part of me disappeared
into his grave. Arabs swear by dreams. we are alone
until we are not. I see my brother walking in the back of my dreams.
I have two daughters in this world with my ex-lover. I watch him
argue with his girlfriend & move our daughters back to Ramallah. he kisses
my hair. my mouth becomes my own. I make a language
and quote Iraqi poets as an excuse. the bullets my mother dodged
lay thick in my skin. I am marked by the PLO & surrounding armies.
I am born furious. in another world, I become a killer. I remind myself
it cannot be in this world. in this world, my mother forces my name
into practicality. I never wanted to be made
soft then I fell in love. I wondered, lying next to him, if I could be happy
being made into an artwife. an explosion blasts our windows
open; he curses Palestinians. in this world I should not rely on my violence.
my father tells me my violence will keep me alive in this world. I returned
to my country, sliced my breasts & begged for violence.
I fell in love and told him I wasn’t until he left. I never forget how
cruelty is so at home in my tongue. I learn to walk without
showing my blood. I want to forget the butcher knife against
my mother’s throat. I want to drown and come out baptised. I
feel the sweetest when the waxer stretches sugar onto my body,
as if I can be remade. I want to be in Ramallah til I am no longer afraid.
I want to wake up and hitch my legs over his torso. I have forgiven,
love easily. I cannot remember my fear. my memories of the violence
are hazy. I do not want to forget about death. I do not want
to misremember my brother. I know we are born selfish.
I bathe in rosewater as a spell. I put honey on lips
crack pomegranate seeds on cheekbones. I spend my days in love
with the world. my parents made their mistakes so I make mine.
my brother is dead so now I am a twin.
I will never tell him I am in love til
he kisses me, honey-suckle in mouth. I want you to know
I know what joy feel like now.


 leena aboutaleb is an egyptian palestinian writer. She can be virtually located on Twitter at @na5leh.