Rock-a-Thon

If Ella and Dave rock in the borrowed chairs for another hour, together, in those sixty minutes, they will raise thirteen dollars and fifty cents, enough pledge money to satisfy one faraway stomach for one day or help fund the well diggings in Haiti. The short-term missionaries are there now, putting in a good word for Christ. But the two teenagers are sick of the Sunday school room. Between the door and the ping pong table, half of the rockers, even Pastor Kevin, fell asleep by two AM, and Ella and Dave have already seen the Disney movies being played, one after the other on the ancient television that is as fat as a fridge.

They shrug off their blankets then peer over their shoulders at the Bible-versed whiteboard waveringly lit by the television’s blue glow, at the drowsy and slumbering faces of the Youth for God. With a glance at each other, they ease out of their seats, and the chairs surrender their furtive bodies, rocking back with two moans. Staying low, they sidle along the wall and find the door. The hallway and stairwell are dark, except for the place under the exit sign. Ella thinks Dave looks hellish in the small explosion of red.

They tread softly down the stairs and through the foyer. At their touch, the sanctuary doors open, heavy and easy at once. They wonder at the shakiness of their hands, their giddiness, the sickness of their stomachs. In five years, they will liken the sensation of sleep deprivation to a hangover. If they were not Ella and Dave of the Free Methodist Church, they would make that comparison now.

In the sanctuary, however, they do not feel like themselves. This is because the sanctuary, unoccupied, unlit, is not itself. Nighttime steals most of the pews and the piano. But the long windows, plainly frosted and faintly illuminated with streetlights, guide them down the aisle. The cross on the wall behind the altar hangs only in their minds. Their footsteps sound loud.

In the middle of the cavernous room, they step sideways into a pew. They sit beside each other in the slippery wooden seat that cups them backward, just like it does on Sundays. They barely talk, and in the quiet, they discern a muffled rain against the windows and, they think, the distant creak and groan of the rockers.

Ella and Dave feel a little guilty. But they feel even sleepier than guilty and manage to stretch out on the pew, a head-to-head, single-file arrangement that permits a falsely casual touching, an awareness of the other’s proximity. It also allows them to whisper and hear.

Delicately, Dave takes some of Ella’s dark hair in his hand, holds it to his cheek and smells it. He is her friend here. In school, they don’t talk much. He takes the better classes, smart especially in science.

She listens to him describe a new video game. Then she listens to him breathe. And while she pretends she does not know he is touching her hair, she also listens to the rain and the rocking, the same sounds Noah would have heard if his story were true: the storm and the swaying of his boat with its sleeping menagerie, such a peaceful cradle for a world welling with rain and so thoroughly and savagely uncreating itself.

Melissa Ostrom lives in rural western New York with her husband and children. She serves as a public school curriculum consultant, teaches English at Genesee Community College, and writes whenever and however much her four-year-old and six-year-old let her. Her fiction has appeared in Monkeybicycle, decomP, Oblong, Crack the Spine, Cleaver Magazine, and elsewhere.

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The Alchemy of Construction

When I arrive, Fisher is measuring and marking planks of wood with a pencil he keeps clamped between his teeth. His bare toes, peeking out from the frayed hem of his jeans, are tapping in time with a reggae song I don’t know the name of. Fisher nods in my direction, pushing black curls off his forehead with his wrist. He sticks the pencil behind his ear and turns back to his wood—my wood. Soon the planks will be bookshelves: a birthday gift, a labor of friendship to atone for all the gifts that have gone ungiven, all the holidays that have gone unmarked. The same holidays I have spent tracing thoughts of Fisher’s face in my dreams, mapping out its angles in my memory.

It takes me a moment now to adjust to the sight of him, to the presence of flesh and bone. I am more accustomed to his voice, that honey syrup drip that slides into my eardrums over long-distance wires. Having him here, in my home, in front of me, is jolting. It has been too long since I have seen him sitting across my table or sprawled upon my sofa. I resist the urge for physical confirmation, though my hands ache toward the damp, baby curls along his nape. My fingertips itch to trace the outline of his spine pressing through his T-shirt. I long for the contact of bone so that I can remember something solid the next time he leaves.

I have kissed Fisher only once, years ago on a drunken New Year’s dare. Still, the ripeness of his mouth has stayed with me, forever reminding me of mangos and peaches, of juicy summer fruit spilling onto my tongue. He is there, softness just splitting the skin, in my head. I’ve tried to sketch him, but the charcoal refused to capture the shadows under his cheekbones or the fullness of his mouth. No paints or pencils or brushes could translate the taste of him onto a flat piece of paper. I gave up trying a long time ago.

I watch him measure and mark as I put bottles and jars away. It is bewitching to watch him; the way he handles the wood, balancing the weight in his palms, the grace of tendons and sinew moving and flowing. There is beauty in the way he can take something raw and turn it into something finished. The alchemy of construction, he calls it. Turning base to noble. Exerting outside force upon the pieces to turn them into something whole, something new, something altogether different.

My father used to build things when I was young; dollhouses and bookcases, coffee tables with brass-ringed portholes that revealed a fish tank within. The scent of sawdust always transports me back to the familiar, to scenes of growing up, to home. Smelling it now however, clinging to Fisher’s skin like perfume, makes my heart sing out for my mother. No tools were strong enough to save her. No amount of hammering, no amount pounding or force or magic or alchemy could stop her dying.

I know Fisher hammers and pounds to keep his own demons at bay. He builds to forget. I know them, his demons and dreams, I know what keeps him awake, what he fights to forget. Years of late night phone calls and drunken confessions, of consolation conversations, have left a crack in his soul into which I can peer. I remember his bruises and scars, plum and livid, even if he does not.

Finished now, I sit on the floor, my back against the wall. There is a stray nail and I use the pointy tip to gouge out old dirt and lint from the cracks and spaces in the boards. Across the room Fisher holds the wood up to the wall, aligning it with holes he’s already drilled into the plaster. The planks are narrow, only the width of a paperback. I asked him to keep them rough and natural, unsanded and unstained. I hope that running my hands over the raw wood, feeling tiny splinters catch on my skin, will bring me closer to home; connect me in some little way to nature. To seasons and space and air and light. That for the time it takes for a sliver of wood to pierce my skin I could forget the tiny apartment in the dirty city and think of home.

Fisher turns and smiles at me, a handful of nails between his teeth. He raises a dark eyebrow and I nod, understanding his wordless question after years of silences and absence. He turns back to the wall, away from me. The nail is still in my hand and I use the tip to trace shadows on the floor before I put it into my mouth between my teeth. It is warm from being in my grip, but the metallic taste is cold. I run my tongue over the flat head of it, feeling the slight irregularities in the edges. I want to swallow the sharp taste of nails in tandem, create some sort of conduit. It is as close as I can get, this intimacy of taste, this imagined connection between our mouths.

I wish Fisher would teach me this trick of building things out of nothings. I would welcome the callouses that come from wielding heavy tools or the vibrations from a drill down deep in my marrow if it were possible to build us new selves. I’d take bones and skin and muscle and soul, nail them and jigsaw screw until I had something better. Something new. The alchemy of construction. I would take the broken pieces and build us both new souls: strong enough to withstand the desires of one and the demons of the other. I would leave just enough room for one more summer fruit kiss.

Dina Honour is an American writer living in Copenhagen, Denmark. Her work has appeared in Paste Magazine, Hippocampus Magazine, Biographile and in the literary anthology Precipice, among others. She recently completed work on her first novel and is experiencing phantom limb syndrome in her fingertips from lack of typing. Find her on Twitter (@DinaHonour) or at Wine and Cheese (Doodles).

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Scrapbook

I remember the days
Of vodka and grapefruit juice
That melted into nights
Of quarter draft beers

And the telemarketing jobs
Like scripted auditions
Where offscreen voices
Would say “Sorry, but no”

And the girls who would leave
Early next morning
With easy excuses
That seemed almost rehearsed

Leaving me listening
To a dust-covered album
That when I hear it now
Doesn’t sound the same

Richard Schnap is a poet, songwriter and collagist living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His poems have most recently appeared locally, nationally and overseas in a variety of print and online publications.

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Selah

“Is it gonna make me jumpy?”

“No,” said Socrates. “The marijuana counteracts the effects. It’s a relaxant, a narcotic. Calma el alma. Like morphine or something.”

“So what’s the point?”

But Socrates remained silent as he produced the blunt from his side pocket. This morning, before we picked up the girls, he’d sprinkled cocaine across the unrolled blunt’s length, carefully, like an experienced chef who can determine flavor potency by sight. I’d once seen Socrates fashion a bong out of a Granny Smith apple, culinary skills bested only by curious but effective paraphernalia creations. He worked with me at Arby’s making roast beef sandwiches.

Emily said, “I think this is gonna make me wig out.”

“If you go into something thinking that way,” said Jessica, “of course it will. Change your state of mind. Relax.”

Our co-workers Emily and Jessica doubled as our dates. We stood, the four of us, in a circle deep in the wooded area of Indiana Dunes State Park, a recreation area near Lake Michigan’s southernmost cut. Indiana sawgrass tickled our bare feet, and some purple wildflowers I couldn’t name drooped over on the rise, happy-like, sun-drunk. Moby Dick clouds swam through the sky and with their underbellies scraped birch and maple, thick shagbark and black gum. Trees that brought forth fruit in their season. Trees that sheltered our sins. People often shrank from the beach and filtered into the forest with wrongful intentions, according to Socrates. Sex. Drugs. Somewhere, deep in the silt, a body was buried. Socrates knew about things like that. Or at least he claimed to.

Socrates’ dad, a second-generation immigrant, drove roach coaches all across the south side, selling prepackaged pizza slices, burritos, and gyros outside railyards and factories. Socrates loved telling people his dad worked in Chicago—we lived nearby in Griffith, Indiana, a place no one was proud to be from. Socrates shaved his head to the skin and managed an immaculate goatee, facial hair so pristine it appeared painted on, black as used oil, trimmed and full.

“What’s this called?” asked Emily. Earlier, before we picked up the girls in Socrates’ Toyota, I claimed Emily as my date and he hadn’t put up much of a fight, leading me to believe I’d chosen poorly. “When you lace a blunt?”

“Cocoa puffs,” I said.

Socrates waved a dismissive hand. “Nuh uh. I call it a Christmas tree.” He unwrapped the tip and displayed a powder trail for us. “See all that snow?” He laughed.

“Whatever,” said Jessica, a brunette with eyes the color of Lake Michigan. I felt betrayed by Socrates, as though he’d somehow incepted me into pursuing the less attractive Emily. They were Polish girls who’d recently graduated high school together and now sought a little bit of danger before attending college in the fall. Socrates and I, both twenty years old, stood on that wonderful precipice between college-aged burnout and complete adult wastoid. Meaning: we were mitigated risks.

Emily said, “Isn’t this kind of like smoking crack? I mean, that’s what crack is. Cocaine.”

“It’s barely even a crack approximation,” said Socrates, which was meant to console Emily but had the opposite effect. “Crack is the strongest form of cocaine—they burn all the impurities out. This isn’t even crack lite. It’s gone from your system in a day and if you don’t snort it you won’t crave it. Yeah?”

“I guess,” said Emily, leaning against a maple tree. She wore a blue bikini with white polka dots. I quickly assessed her via peripheral vision. Although she failed to fill out her swimsuit the same way as Jessica, she was taller and had longer legs, reinforcing my decision-making skills.

Socrates fired up the blunt with a cheap but effective Bic lighter. The mixture crackled more like Rice Krispies than Cocoa Puffs, but I still preferred my designation. Christmas tree, the nickname Socrates decided on, made me think of church and the Bible. Old memories. The blunt’s tip turned bright orange as Socrates took a deep drag, and the odor, a distinct flavor, could best be described as burning leaves combined with a more acrid version of a chewed up aspirin tablet. The latter could be caused by baby laxative, which most cocaine is cut up with. Why baby laxative? Because it’s cheap.

Socrates passed the blunt to his left, to Jessica, who toked professionally, coughed, and handed it over to Emily. I watched carefully. Emily took careful sips, like someone on TV might taste a suspicious vial before spitting and saying, yeah, that’s poison. In fact, she did spit, or more of a cough actually, a lightbulb-sized puff shining dull gray under the hot Indiana sun.

When it was my turn I dragged a nice even hit, rotating the blunt so it would burn evenly, letting the smoke roll down to the bottom of my lungs before sifting it out my nostrils.

“Good stuff,” said Socrates. Not a question; he knew.

“Yep,” I said.

It turned out that the four of us were all youngest siblings of large families. Emily and Jessica, both Polish and Catholic, had six brothers and sisters between them. Socrates came late, an accident baby after his parents had already birthed two boys and two girls. For myself, the third of four. We shared familial trial and tribulation stories from our past as the blunt circled.

“My oldest sister is your typical good Catholic girl,” explained Jessica. “She got in trouble for sassing or something, I don’t remember, when our dad was busy shingling the roof, so he said, ‘Remind me to spank you later.’ He was the disciplinarian, you know. He spanked us with his leather belt. Anyway, hours later my dad climbs off the roof, hot, sweaty, tired–probably a Saturday project before mass–and he’s sitting in the living room with a glass of ice water. Completely forgot about the spanking. But my sister, goody-two-shoes, fearful and trembling, all meek and everything, approaches my dad and reminds him.”

She paused to inhale the blunt. “Like, you forgot to punish me, Dad. And she was terrified, hated getting in trouble, but she thought it’d be worse to not say anything.”

“A lie of omission,” said Socrates, stroking his goatee.

“Exactly. But my dad, and probably because he was all tired, tells her forget about it. And she’s like, forget? Like I never did anything? She never got paddled, either. He said, ‘You get grace this time.'”

“Grace?” I said.

“It’s just forgiveness,” said Emily, again hitting the blunt cautiously, prodding it like a bird beaks into a crack in the wall. “That’s all it means.”

“No,” said Socrates. “Profound forgiveness. The nonsensical variety.”

I laughed and accepted the blunt from Emily. “None of it makes sense to me.”

“My older brother socked me in the gut one time,” said Socrates. “Outside the library. We were walking inside the glass double doors, a stack of readers in my arms, and he turned around and punched me. For no reason. I doubled over, somehow keeping hold of my books. Even today it bothers me, sticks in my head. I want to sock him back.”

“You probably had it coming,” I said. “Deserved it.”

“I just said I didn’t. He did crap like that all the time. And if I deserved it, do you think it would still bother me?”

“But come on, you were a little kid. Memory forgets, sentimentalizes.” While I spoke, I noticed Emily was crying. “What’s wrong?”

She shook her head.

“She has emotional incontinence,” said Jessica, trying to make a joke.

“I just realized I don’t have a story,” said Emily, wiping her face. “My family was perfect.”

“Geez,” I said, shooing away some no-see-ums that tickled my ear. “That’s no reason to get weepy.” Occasionally the marijuana/coke combination brought about strange, unpredictable behavior in first-time users. Personally I felt like a brick building, happy to remain stagnant and watch the birds swoop in and the sawgrass wave and the clouds spout water trails, but Emily teetered on total collapse.

“I’ll be okay,” she assured us. “I want this.”

Which meant what exactly? Socrates shrugged and took the blunt from me. It circled once more before blazing out; the cocaine seemed to amplify burn time, counteracting the sticky cigar wrapper Socrates had so delicately mummified it in. I wanted to share the story of my brother stealing beer from the liquor store only to discover, once safe at home, it was non-alcoholic O’Doul’s—I thought it might cheer Emily up—but the storytelling occasion had passed. And Emily now appeared unrattled. She even took a powerful drag for her last turn, handing me little more than a brown, ashy nub. I hit it by making the “okay” sign with my hand, a thumb and pointer finger pressed together, a sort of shadow rabbit, and so did Socrates, who then Spanish-swore and stomped out the roach’s pitiful remains on the ground.

We slipped through the woods, the trees close together now like pipe organ tubes in some church choir loft, and finally emerged unto the beach. It spread out before us flat and tan, and standing on the dune, elevated a few stories above everyone else, I wished to see all the way to Chicago. But Lake Michigan’s blue caught every sun sparkle, blinding me.

“Let’s slide down together,” said Emily.

Socrates held Jessica’s hand as they descended toward the beach. I took Emily’s hand and followed them, displacing sand, skidding more than stepping, and by the time we reached the bottom we all four laughed, exhilarated, enlivened, enraptured, completely zonked.

People around us, oblivious to our mental states, performed various beach activities: frisbees sailed and arced, volleyballs made that deep plunking sound when dug out from a spike, a football wobbled from water to sand. And just as I began to lament the underrepresentation of European sports, a soccer ball bounced toward us. Socrates dribbled it sloppily and kicked it back.

Jessica said, “Let’s get in the water already.”

“It’s probably cold,” I said.

“It’s June.”

“Hang on just a minute,” said Socrates. “We have to find our stuff.”

Somehow we located our belongings, beach towels spread out in the sand. While the girls self-applied suntan lotion, Socrates placed the rest of our eight-ball in his denim jacket. I’d told him—begged him, really—to leave the drugs at home, to only bring along the absolute necessary amount, to avoid a possible criminal charge and everything, but he objected with “You never know,” which I supposed could be interpreted a variety of ways with none of them being particularly honorable. He acted like he wanted to get caught, so much that I questioned his illicit substance management skills. “You white boys,” he’d said, clicking his tongue and shaking his head. I had cowered away, ashamed.

“What are you doing?” asked Jessica.

“Checking my phone,” replied Socrates. He winked at me.

We splashed into the water and discovered a miracle: warmth. Not the water itself, but the floating sensation that came with it. We drifted for a while, aimlessly, then played chicken, Socrates and I placing our dates on our shoulders and wrestling each other for dominance. The drugs delivered: I felt simultaneously engaged and unconcerned. We didn’t keep score. It was like playing sports in preschool or kindergarten, the purity of the game captured and preserved for a few brief years. I understood, in a way, why people smoked crack. Everyone was trying to burn their life down to its purest form. I shared my nirvana with the group.

“Stoner philosophy,” said Socrates.

“Why are you being so dismissive? It could be true.”

“Everything could be true,” admitted Emily.

“Ugh,” said Socrates, grabbing Jessica in a backward hug. “Your theories are contagious. Stay away from us!”

It was insulting, but I laughed anyway. I didn’t know why. I couldn’t help it.

We paired off into dating groups after that, Emily and I chest-deep, Jessica and Socrates further out, deeper, floating heads back at the barrier ropes. The county roped off the deep water and had lifeguards, so we remained safe from drowning. A few people snorkeled around us even though all you could see was murky, boring, lifeless carpet under the water. Gulls flapped and shrieked as they hunted gull food, hungry and grumpy in their search.

“Look at that girl,” said Emily. “On the beach. She’s got more muscles than you do.”

I spotted the subject, an athletic chick in a sports bra and bikini bottom, playing football on the beach. Her tan, toned arms shimmered under the sunlight. She tossed a dead duck to a wealth of male followers.

“But she throws like a girl.”

Emily laughed, so I kissed her.

“Whoa,” she said, brushing me off. “I like you, but I don’t know if I like you yet.”

I’d heard that distinction before. “Oh well.”

“Hey, don’t think I’m not interested. I just like to take my time with relationships.”

“Same here,” I lied. “You deserve to be happy.”

“You really think so?”

“Sure. Why not?” She smelled sweet, but fake sweet, like pseudo-fruit, the artificial things they mix into girls’ body spray. Melon passion fruit or rad red raspberry.

“Anyway, I’ll be away at college soon. I’m going pre-med.”

“Ambitious,” I said, even though I knew ‘pre-med’ was more of a declaration than anything else. Still, she had more ambition than me. “You’ll make good money.”

“But that’s not why. I want to be like that lifeguard, but, you know, really save people.”

“Save them from what?”

She blinked.

“I just think,” I said, “that you can save someone, but at the same time you can’t.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

It angered me that she only appreciated her own distinctions. It was perfectly clear to me; why couldn’t she see? But I faked a smile anyway.

“Sorry,” I said, making a shadow rabbit with my right hand.

“The drugs,” she said, and laughed sweetly.

“If you’re serious about college, you’d better stop hanging out with guys like me.”

She said, “Don’t tempt me.”

With the sun streaking down to one corner of Lake Michigan, we paddled to shore and dried off. About half the people, beach-dwellers, sojourners every last one, had exited due to the decreasing temperature and darkening corners. Gulls flapped away. The tide consumed leftover sandcastles. Everything was falling apart, spiraling into a necessary chaos.

I noticed the musclebound hunkess, the girl Emily had pointed out earlier, sitting nearby, wearing a long-sleeved shirt and squinting in the fading light to read a health magazine. I pitied her; she could never escape. But she had her identity, anyway, and surely that was worth something.

“How is this even possible? I’m still blazing,” said Jessica.

“It’s a five-hour high,” promised Socrates.

Our dates wriggled into their jeans shorts, tattered things with fraying white cords that whispered in the wind. Neither girl had brought a t-shirt. It just wasn’t t-shirt season, or at least it hadn’t been when we’d left. Socrates had carried his jacket along since he occasionally wore it while shirtless, thinking himself sexy—a real Latin lover.

“I think I got burnt,” Emily said sorrowfully.

“Told you,” said Jessica. “Use something stronger than SPF 8.”

Emily frowned. “I wanna glow.”

“Not a chance. You’re peeling already.”

“Now I’m freezing, too.”

“Yep. That means you really got burnt.”

Emily looked at Socrates. “Let me wear your jacket.”

“Um,” said Socrates. He shot me a look, not because my girl had asked to wear his article of clothing (traditionally a dating ritual, as I understood it), but because of course the jacket contained several grams of cocaine inside the pocket of said article. But as I hadn’t brought any warmer clothes, her request seemed legitimate, platonic. Socrates rubbed his whiskered chin, nodded slowly, and handed Emily his jacket. She threaded her slim arms through its sleeves.

“Guess I’ll just wear my towel,” said Jessica. She draped it over her shoulders like a cape. “It’s all sandy…”

We made our way across the trail, each step formed by a rotting, tar-spotted railroad tie. The railroad ties made me think of black keys on an antique piano. In fact, I thought I heard a song in the shrubby background, a canticle, probably from Psalms, the most mournful book in Bible. Mournful, but also the most praising and glorious. A real puzzler. As nature’s symphony conducted its song, Socrates threw me his keys behind-the-back style.

“That stuff stays in my head forever. You’re way more lucid than I am,” he said. “Nos llevan al cielo.”

I laughed, the keys jangling in my hand. “Don’t say that unless you mean it.”

Jessica and Emily piled in the back, giggling about something. Girls were always giggling about something; it was part of their mystery. I liked it.

“Back to el casa,” said Socrates. “We got drinks, smokes. What more do we need?”

“Nothing,” I answered, turning the engine over.

Jessica said, “Don’t think you can take advantage of us just because we’re stoned.”

“Hey now,” said Socrates, “you’re talking to two gentlemen. We’re not that type.”

His girl smiled. “Good.”

“Do you have vodka?” asked Emily. She contorted her arms behind her head and fashioned a ponytail. “I could use something to level me out.”

“We have it all,” I said.

“How about some air back here?” said Emily.

“Thought you were cold,” said Jessica. “Make up your mind.”

“It’s all stuffy in this car.”

“Wait till we get moving,” replied Socrates.

“We can’t wait. We’re eighteen,” said Jessica, laughing.

I pulled out of the parking lot, creeping along in the birch and maple shadows. The A/C sucked but I turned it on anyway, pumping semi-cool air back to the girls. Instead of 94, I took Dunes Highway out, relishing the sunsetting beach, the female accompaniment, dried sweat on my lips, slowly angling our lives and our futures toward Griffith. A few stars poked through the sky like silver fish needling a dark, watery surface. The lakeside drive felt haunted, inhabited by one, maybe two vehicles.

Salt shaker noises emitted from the radio as I searched for a decent station. The Toyota, nearly as old as I was, came with a factory radio that had knobs instead of buttons for the dial. Finally I landed on a Top 40 station, which pleased the back seat.

“I’ve got orientation next week,” said Jessica.

“Did it already,” said Emily, head-bopping. “My mom took me. It’s a three-hour drive–not far enough away from Griffith, if you ask me. The guides try to hit on you hardcore, even hit on the moms. Pathetic.”

“The school spirit guys.”

“Ugh. Look at my nails–they’re all janky.”

“File those tiger claws, lady.”

I set the cruise control and said “Light me up” to Socrates. He poked two cigarettes into his mouth. Socrates, he looked like a cigarette commercial the way he so professionally sparked his cheap lighter, fired off both smokes, and handed me one. Probably I could spend all my life trying to be like him only to discover he’d been envious of me, my white privilege, et cetera, his whole life.

But the first puff gave me punk eye, a stinging sensation that made me blink and tear up, causing me to skid off the road momentarily. I jerked the wheel to aim us forward again.

“Whoa,” said Emily.

Jessica said, “You’re good to drive, right?”

“Relax. There was a bunny in the road.”

“Uh oh,” said Socrates, eyeing his side mirror.

Blue and red lights flashed behind me. A Porter County trooper saddled up behind us, practically ramming our bumper. Emily and Jessica swiveled around and gawked in disbelief. Socrates sat lower in his seat and swore in English, then Spanish. Gravel crackled under the Toyota as I eased us onto the shoulder.

“What are we supposed to do?” said Jessica.

“They can tell if you’re high,” said Emily. “What if my parents find out?”

Socrates lowered his voice. “She’s got that paranoia,” he said, meaning Emily. “Ill-timed.”

“Extremely.”

The cop sat behind us, calling in our plates, observing us. The girls whispered as though he could hear them. I couldn’t see a way, considering the state we were in, especially the girls, that the cop wouldn’t pat everybody down. Bad news for one of us. I did a personal, mental inventory to determine my culpability. I felt no loyalty toward Emily, and anyway, Socrates had given her his loaded jacket, not me. If he wouldn’t intervene, why should I? I heard the cop’s door open and slam shut behind us.

Socrates apologized to Emily.

“For what?”

“In advance,” he told her.

Some people never get a chance at grace and just live out their lives unforgiven, perhaps the saddest thing in the world, certainly worth crying over, and suddenly I realized why Emily had broken down during our blunt-smoking session. It surged toward me: we couldn’t take our lives and burn off the impurities so long as everyone else was involved. See, we had to answer for all the world’s sins, not just those committed by us. That was the plight of humanity, but also its saving grace. It was how King David could bemoan and praise the Lord within the same psalm. And Emily, she just couldn’t understand. She’d never been down there, not really. But she sat in the back seat, eighteen years young, sunburned, lotioned, sweet-smelling, long-legged, bejacketed, with a drug charge in her borrowed pocket. I smiled. I rolled down the window.

Lucas Shepherd is a first-year MFA student at the University of New Mexico. He served in the United States Air Force from 2006-2010. He is currently working on a paranormal thriller novel.

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Expansion

During the slow passing autumns,
we progressed from foraging
apples to mushrooms, our heads
seeking the deeper thrills promised
by our elder leaders.

There in the loft, where we took salvage,
with cider and cans welded to our
untrained hands like extended limbs,
the TV crackles and sparks, leaving
no room for interference.

Then the next day, the powers that be
sift through our hand-forged letters,
our excuses as weak as our attempts
at our handwritten ruse; three weeks
of rewriting our sins fifty times over.

Through the windows after each class
the glass seemed that little wider,
and the trees seemed to age with
each session, their branches like
broken fingers brushing me past.

Their leaves falling at a steady pace,
but still without chance of flight,
and despite those promises made by
our elders, our minds still remained
as stable as ever.

Jonathan Butcher has had poetry appear in various print and online publications, including: Popshot Magazine, Elbow Room, Belleville Park Pages, Electric Windmill, Dead Beats, and others. His second chapbook Broken Slates has been published by Flutter Press.

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Roxie and Zeke

In my box. Here I am in my box looking out at the people flowing by. I have nothing to offer them. I cannot play the violin, the guitar or the cello. I have no singing voice. I have a croak. Even if I could play the violin, the guitar, or the cello I have no money to buy one with to be able to play for them. And a singing voice cannot be bought with money. I cannot bring myself to do like some do, just sit on the sidewalk with a cup before me, and maybe with a little sign saying Please Help. I figure I owe them something. I do not expect to get something for nothing. There’s something I need to do. I cannot dance for them—my legs get in a tangle when I try and dance. I used to try and dance with Roxie when she was still alive. We used to go down to the Willows on a Saturday night and dance, and drink, and spend some money. We even had decent clothes then to go out in. I, of course, have nothing now. The time with Roxie was long ago. I was a pipefitter then. I made money and lived in a little apartment not much bigger than this box, it seems looking back. But I had something. And I had Roxie. Now this box was for a refrigerator—a very, very big refrigerator. I had a refrigerator in the apartment and between TV shows Roxie used to bring me beers from the refrigerator. We watched a lot of TV. Now, there is a funny show, would say Roxie—and I would say yes. A very funny show. I would sit half-comatose in my La-Z-Boy and laugh along with Roxie. This was every night and when Saturday came, like I told you we would go out dancing. Roxie was a good dancer but I was a crummy dancer. But she led well. I was a pipefitter—I had strong hard calloused hands and I worked hard—I thought if I went on working hard I could make a good life for me and Roxie. But the subject of marriage never came up. She didn’t even know I was trying to make a good life for us together. She just thought I worked hard like she did—she had an office job, like a typist or something like that—a clean job that won’t make your hands hard or calloused. I would be on the job—I would tell the men about my Roxie and show off her picture. And some of the men would say Roxie? What kind of a name is Roxie—Sounds like a made-up name to me. But it wasn’t. Funny. I can’t really remember, now, her last name. Smith or Smithers or something like that. I have trouble remembering, but I remember her blue eyes. Now, Roxie died of the cancer—and just like that, I was alone in my box of an apartment, and I tried to watch TV and laugh at it alone, and I had nothing to tell the other pipefitters about anything but going home and doing nothing—and for a while, I went down to the Willows on Saturday nights and watched the dancers, but I would just sit and watch—never dance—and I would drink. The drinking made me smile a little but not at anything in particular—just from the whiskey fumes come up inside, I would sit back with my eyes half-closed and I would smile. I would smile and the feeling in my face from the smile would make it seem that Roxie was probably beside me. Like she was still alive. But I would look and there would be no one beside me—it’d just be me, alone at my little table with my drink in my hand. One drink led to another and then another. I could scarcely drive home every Saturday night, but I always made it. I just pointed the car and it went straight and got me home every time. But I would only drink on Saturday night—the other nights were for the TV and the La-Z-Boy and after a while, I got a cat. A little black one that would lie in my lap while I watched the TV. The cat would lick my hand and it drank milk from a yellow bowl and it ate from a green bowl. They were just bowls I grabbed down from the cabinet when I brought the cat home from the shelter but it’s funny—it always drank from the yellow, and ate from the green. I had money then, to feed the cat. I even thought that in some way the cat was enjoying watching the TV. After a while, it occurred to me that I needed to name the cat. Kitty was not a good name. It’s funny when I brought the cat home I never thought to name it. It’s probably from the way I was brought up. There were cats on the farm, barn cats, and none of them had names. So I named the cat Zeke. It was a boy cat so the name just popped into my mind one day, I don’t know why Zeke, but that’s just how those things happen sometime you know. So time went by like that and I kept on pipefitting and sitting at night with Zeke and watching TV and he would lick my hand. I stopped going to the Willows on Saturday nights because it got really boring sitting there after it sank in fully that Roxie would never be with me there again, it would have been fine if I had been able to bring Zeke to the club but no, no—all the music and motion would spook him. But I bought a bottle of whiskey and I drank every Saturday night just as though I was at the Willows. And so I watched TV every night of the week and on that one night, Saturday, I drank. Now, when I drank Zeke wouldn’t sit on my lap. I don’t know why that was. Maybe the smell of the whiskey didn’t appeal to him. He would lie curled up on a little blanket I had down on the floor in front of the TV. It was a blanket Roxie had brought from her place a long time ago, for when she slept over the couple of nights she did. On those nights, she slept in my bed. We had sex on those nights and I remember thinking while we were having sex it was just cranking away, cranking away, you know, cranking away like that. I didn’t get much out of it but I hoped that she did. I think she did. It was only a couple of nights toward the end of when I knew her, before she was diagnosed. Once we knew she had the cancer that was it for the sex, though she still slept over once in a while and she brought the little blanket over that Zeke ended up sleeping on in front of the TV. So we went on like that until I ended up losing Zeke. I just woke up one morning and there was Zeke in his spot at the foot of the bed, stiff and dead. He wasn’t even really that old but I guess you can go anytime. I didn’t have a yard to bury him in because I was in an apartment complex so I brought him to the vet and they cremated him. That’s him in that little box there in the corner of my big box—he’s about the only thing I kept from the house after I walked away that night. There was no point in watching TV anymore, because there was no one to watch it with—there was no point in pipefitting anymore because there was nobody to bring the money home for—and there was no point in staying in the apartment anymore because—well, just because. Too many memories, I suppose. So I took Zeke and a little bag of clothes and I walked away from it all. And here I am now in my box. It’s all I deserve really. I don’t even have any whiskey anymore. Everything is empty—the world is empty. The people walk by not knowing how empty the world really is—they fill it with their jobs and their stuff but in reality, it is really an empty place. But I like it somehow. There’s something to be said for quiet emptiness. I lie back in my box, and I close my eyes and I’m everywhere all at once—I really can really feel it. Cardboard has a certain feel to it. It’s like you could be anywhere. You can lay a piece of cardboard down anywhere, and lie down on it, and feel the same. Almost all cardboard is the same. I could be anywhere. I close my eyes and lie there and am everywhere all at once, and it is all times at once too. Roxie could be there. And Zeke. So I lie with my eyes closed a lot and listen, listen, to the shuffling feet of the crowd going by and I laugh at them. I laugh. Laugh. I lie here and laugh a lot—it’s like a great big monster of a TV show, and I’m here every night, watching. It’s a good life, even though I can’t play the violin, guitar, or cello, or sing, and even though I dance like I have two left feet because I have no one to lead me like Roxie always used to do.

Jim Meirose’s work has appeared in numerous magazines and journals, including Collier’s, The Fiddlehead, Witness, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Xavier Review, and has been nominated for several awards. Two collections of his short work and three novels have been published. A fourth novel will be released in 2015 by Montag Press.

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The Discovery

We found a young, dead hawk and were aghast.
You started making me promises:
            I will not let your footprints fill in
            with sand, I will not let your growing pains cease.

I turned my head away from the bird
as you surveyed its beauty. Autumn feathers,
obsidian eyes, dead.

And we are students of the Russian ballet,
pained, sexless, contorting our brittle
limbs until we die mid-leap,
beautiful through it all.
Until then,
I am afraid of how you will watch me dance,
not a hawk, but a Firebird,
and of how I will look away.
I will never have known
the span of your wings.

Kate Busatto’s favorite poem is “Bride and Groom Lie Hidden for Three Days” by Ted Hughes. She hopes that she will someday have written somebody else’s favorite poem.

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