Hiding Myself from Wutong Mountain

There is one side of Wutong Mountain in China
that shoots up straight, veils of emerald foliage
dripping down erect pillars of craggy rock.
There is no gentle sloping there to ease the journey of passengers,
no tranquil wind or paved paths. To climb, there is only a bar for the hands
and a thin trail barely visible beyond shrouded fog, precarious enough
so that a misplaced step sends one tumbling over the edge.
When young I knew intimately the rust flaking off that bar,
hands stained orange, my body slender enough to press itself
close against Wutong’s body, against the forbidding rock.
I could never discern how the precipices felt about me – this trembling girl
born from the same dynastic roots and common history, trying
to house within myself the temptation of the beckoning depths,
the fear that I would reject myself from the mountain, push back and fall.
You, Wutong seemed to whisper,
lifting vines and tipping over gravel shards.
You are not welcome.
The deathly heights frowned upon me,
you are not one of us. It knew, even then, that years later
its home would no longer be my home, that my skin and native tongue
would flip inside out, my roots upended from East to West.
It will wonder why I rejected its being in all but touch,
my feverish skin on the lithic surface clinging like vines
all those lifetimes ago.

Cindy Ren is a senior in Highland Park High School of Dallas, Texas. She has won a national Scholastic Art & Writing Award for Poetry and is a National Student Poets Program Semifinalist.

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Flavors sit differently on my tongue
As I look at the girl across from me.
Her blonde hair seems brighter in the
Fluorescent lighting. The cheap atmosphere
Illuminating her features in a different way.

Our utensils scrape the ceramic table settings
And our mouths are full of chintzy diner food
As we share this first moment together.
Her blue eyes are trained on the bowl
Resting in front of her,
But mine are straight ahead.

I know she feels my gaze
As she looks up to return it
A wide smile spreading across her face.
I’ve never shared a moment like this with anyone before.

Her feet keep tapping mine,
A mock game of footsy happening under the table.
I laugh and she responds the same way —
The awkward atmosphere that surrounded us
Soon diminished.

My hand reaches for hers
Our pencil-blistered fingers intertwining
As we discuss miscellaneous topics.

We keep our eyes on each other,
But in the backs of our minds,
Our surroundings are most prominent.

The public is never the safest place to be
If you are not a couple that fits the mold
Of Adam and Eve.

Danie Knopf-Weinstein is a 16-year-old Jewish writer originally from the north shore of Long Island, New York, but now lives in Greer, South Carolina. They attend the Fine Arts Center, a magnet arts high school, for their creative writing program. They are both the Prose and Managing Editor for Apprehension Magazine, and an Assistant Poetry Editor for Crashtest, both experimental online publications for high-school-aged writers around the world. They have had a piece published by Red Fez, and have achieved both a Silver Key and an Honorable Mention in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.

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Guilt Trip

In every phone call
with my mother
there comes a point
when dialogue
narrows to monologue,
and she insists
that she’d be
better off dead
than at the assisted living.
Usually, I
change the subject
to some cheerful
antic of a grandchild.
Lately, she’s begun
reminding me
that she never sees
her grandchildren,
that they couldn’t
pick her out
of a line-up.

She shuffles in
with other grandmothers
below a height chart,
under a glaring
white bulb, all
assisted living
escapees, wheelchair
hijackers, Jell-O king-pins.
My three-year-old
waves to her
behind the see-through
mirror, but grandmother
is stuck on the other side
of her reflection.
CNAs lead her away
with Adeline
and Bertie and Opal.

Al Ortolani’s poetry and reviews have appeared in journals such as Prairie Schooner, New Letters, Word Riot, and The New York Quarterly. He has four books of poetry, The Last Hippie of Camp 50 and Finding the Edge, published by Woodley Press at Washburn University, Wren’s House, published by Coal City Press in Lawrence, Kansas, and Cooking Chili on the Day of the Dead from Aldrich Press in Torrance, California. His fifth book, Waving Mustard in Surrender, was released by New York Quarterly Books in 2014. He is an editor with The Little Balkans Review.

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Pharmacy Run

They find each other waiting in lines
for prescription refills and begin to speak
of ailments. Nothing clicks like
it once did. There are no flashing lights
or musical accompaniments.
They realize that more time is needed,
more time for the moments
that slipped away. Always the lights are low.
More creams are involved, more pills.
Still they fumble for one another,
undressing with their backs turned,
stepping first out of their shoes, creasing
shirts and pants over a chair, pausing
with the curtains drawn.

Al Ortolani’s poetry and reviews have appeared in journals such as Prairie Schooner, New Letters, Word Riot, and The New York Quarterly. He has four books of poetry, The Last Hippie of Camp 50 and Finding the Edge, published by Woodley Press at Washburn University, Wren’s House, published by Coal City Press in Lawrence, Kansas, and Cooking Chili on the Day of the Dead from Aldrich Press in Torrance, California. His fifth book, Waving Mustard in Surrender, was released by New York Quarterly Books in 2014. He is an editor with The Little Balkans Review.

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(Notes found in the journal of Steve Escalier, resident of Holloway, London.)

I lay on my bed, in my bedsit in the decaying basement, and listened to the late summer rain, its effluvient fingers as unceasing in their agitations upon the pavements of Holloway as a lover might be in their tapping at a coffin lid, unable to bear the separation from a departed loved one. But as for me? I was not like that. I was attached to no one. I knew no one as a lover, nor even as a friend, other than for Gemma, who kept me from drowning in my solitude in this vast, impersonal city.

I felt few emotions and had lived alone so long I remembered no other way. And I despised this ant colony of an accommodation structure, if accommodation was not too elevated a term for the mouldering catacomb in which I resided. And if I were to face the truth, which sometimes I could manage for brief interludes, my life felt less purposeful than that of an insect. At least insects lived together. I, on the other hand, pursued a solipsistic solitude through each one of my waking hours.

Reason dictated that I had to get my own place, find a new life, transform myself from drab caterpillar, inching round the roads of Holloway, to something much more colourful, more radiant. And then I’d flutter off to new and verdant lands.

I had to get a job. All else depended on this single thing. I knew a job would bring me rich rewards: Once I’d found my calling, and excelled therein, I’d come to have a residential property that was palatial in nature and the accolades of my peers. At last I’d be someone.

Work had always been my focus. Why was this so? Maybe there was an answer. Perhaps the DNA of worker bees, programmed to work a certain number of hours each day at specific tasks, as I’d read of in a journal of popular science, had been woven at some point back in time into my own DNA. Once my mind alighted on this thought, it seemed to be so obvious. This had to be the cause of my strange behaviour.

Lying in my bedsit, with a day off from my work, at Workhouse Promotions, a dismal sales company, my mind meandered where it wanted. I thought about my origins as a hybrid of a human and a worker bee, created in a lab, brought up in a compound. I’d never had a family, siblings, parents, friends or even schoolmates. I was reared by machines that briefed me on efficiency at work. At night I ran inside a wheel to fortify my strength. Later on, my series type of humanoid was discontinued. It was found out that a mutant, like myself, fixated just on working, was often unreliable, prone to breakdowns and insanity. Manufacture of my series stopped. Later models were programmed with more human characteristics such as empathy and compassion. I’d heard of both these things but their meanings were unclear to me. I had some human traits, but not an overabundance.

I cursed aloud, angry with myself for drifting into a reverie of quasi-truths and outright fictions. I had to face my problems in the here and now. What job could I get to solve my problems?

In the world of real things and events, my most rewarding job had been a library job but I’d left all that behind, a good few years ago. I’d worked at The Archive of Victorian Slang, in Islington Central Library, close to Highbury Fields. Although I’d toiled in a tiny office and was paid a pittance for my work, at least I’d been engaged in something that utilised my ceaseless mental functions. And even if I sometimes wondered if immersion in the culture of that older time in history might have influenced my views in a negative way, making me over-formal in my thinking and maybe inhibited, I would have liked to work there once again. I do admit that words and phrases that I’d studied in that job would drift into my thoughts. For example, lying in my bedsit on my bed, I felt I’d ‘got the morbs’. This was a phrase from nineteenth century London that meant to be possessed by temporary melancholy. Perhaps my morbid depression was caused by working in a job I couldn’t bear, at Workhouse Promotions.

The chances of getting any decent job were reduced by fluctuations in my mental health which had always been inconstant, moving up and down a spectrum. I’d been prone to breakdowns and moments of insanity. My instances of lunacy took the form of one recurrent dream. This dream harassed my nights with variations on a theme. The fantasy contained two unchanging elements. First there was an appendage moving with a whipping action. Second was a scream of pain. Once the dream contained a being, with human eyes and smirking mouth but snake-like in its form. It lashed out through the murk, striking at its target, provoking a horrendous shriek. That time I woke up whimpering, my perspiring palms showing the level of my fear. I thanked the fates the creature never ventured out of my dreams, that I’d never have to meet it on the streets of Holloway.

And how did I survive in economic terms? As I have already told you, I worked at Workhouse Promotions, a call centre selling self-help books and life coaching sessions to vulnerable members of society. I traded in the currency of despair. This fuelled my sense of unfulfillment. I was a spider eating flies, while fearing predators of greater strength.

My musings oh so moribund were interrupted by the softest vibration at the barred window of my tiny basement room. I glanced towards the cobweb-coated glass and saw a minute creature, faltering across the grease-streaked pane. I felt an immense sorrow for its vulnerability. Was this the sentiment called empathy? Was I becoming more human? Or was it in fact my apian DNA that made me sympathise?

It was a dying worker bee, coming to the end of its one and only summer. The animal was far from vigorous, as it essayed a sluggish sashay across its vitreous platform. I wondered if I could help the faltering beast then thought better of it. There were many of its companions in such a state as this. I could not help them all. This was merely nature’s way. If I was to help this one, where might the project end? And in practice, how could I assist this bee? Nourish it with sugared water? Take it to a park and place it in a flower?

Then I had an insight that appeared to solve my problems. My anxieties diluted as my plan materialised. Keeping bees would be my calling.

This occupation ticked all boxes. The work would be outdoors, it might provide me with a fruitful income, there was no hierarchy so no one could dismiss me, I could escape the strictures of the city and there’d be excitement and adventure, fresh chapters in my life. My plan was ‘bang up to the elephant’, to use an older phrase, by which I mean it seemed to be perfect and complete.

For the first time in a long time, I experienced enthuzimuzzy, an archaic term for enthusiasm.

But my priority was to source the requisite uniform.

I looked again towards the window and saw the bee had left and gone elsewhere. But it had brought me inspiration and I felt indebted to that humble arthropod. I thought about my brand new plan.

To finesse the details of this scheme, I thought I’d head down to The Lamb, a pub on Holloway Road. It was the traditional Irish music night, which meant the place would be busy and I could lose my self-obsessiveness, mingling in the crowd. In addition, I wanted to talk to Gemma, perhaps the only friend I’d ever had. Gemma was a dominatrix by trade. I’d made her acquaintance through long evenings at The Lamb. I held no prejudice against her work, in fact I found her stories fascinating. And she always listened to my plans and gave me useful feedback. Gemma was pragmatic, sussed, streetwise, in part, I supposed, due to the manifold nature of her job. And I knew her work required the use of uniforms and perhaps she’d help me source the garb I’d need for my apian activities.

On the way down to the pub, a mere few blocks’ stroll along Holloway Road, I recalled one particularly troubling version of the dream, that recurrent tenebrous enigma. On that occasion, the image had resembled some giant arthropod, the whiplash motion seeming like a sting. Unease gripped my chest and pedestrians gawped askance, doubtless seeing my countenance distort itself into a knot of doubt. Had the nightmare been a warning? Should I detour from my impending path to apian propagation? And I thought once more of the ailing insect, the one I hadn’t helped. I’d not availed it of my energies when I could have been a good Samaritan. To it, I must have seemed some kind of god, yet I didn’t bother to intervene. Was I strolling towards a showdown, a karmic audit of some form, some settling of scores by nature? I told myself that this could not be so and as I neared The Lamb, I anticipated meeting Gemma.

Music emanating from the pub interrupted my line of thought. On arriving at the doorway, hearing the droning of the Irish pipes, the quivering tones that they emitted sounding as a choir of bees might seem, if insects had the power to harmonize, I scanned the bar but realised to my disappointment that Gemma was not there. There were the usual gigglemumps, to use an older word for smiling faces, propped up at the bar. But Gemma was not in evidence. Her alabaster face and twisted smile gave me reassurance and I needed affirmation of my plan. I felt an onset of the morbs.

Her absence was unusual. Early evening she was usually there to unwind after work. In one corner, a duo were ‘doing the bear’, by which term I describe their romantic hugging. This made me feel more lonesome still. I became angry there was no one there to help me and discuss my plan. As I waited to be served, I ran my fingers down the sharp edge of the knife I carried in my pocket but I would not use it to express anger. That was not my temperament. I’d bought it for the purposes of whittling. This had been a previous scheme, one I had abandoned, to sell a range of ersatz seafarer’s artefacts at a stall in Camden market, but I found the actual whittling process more difficult than imagined. But I didn’t discard the knife. Who knew what the future held? Waiting at an autumn bus stop, I might find some whittling time.

I took my drinks and placed them on a table near the upright piano. I ran one hand along the piano keys, even though I couldn’t play. Discordant notes rang out across the bar. A fiddler sitting with the players, on the seating at the opposite wall, desisted from his tuning to frown in my direction. I didn’t let that bother me. I knew musicians were all egotists and that music didn’t mean that much. I’d learnt that in the compound. They’d told us music was a fruitless joy, producing no commodity. They explained that popular singers were false idols. I sipped at my tequila while I stared out through the window, fixated on my thoughts of keeping bees. Once I’d bought a hive of bees I would be the boss. I would be the emperor of my apian kingdom.

Before I left The Lamb I noticed a poster on the wall. It showed the photo of a scowling face topped off by a fly rink. A fly rink is an earlier phrase for a polished bald head. Beneath the photograph, there was an explanation:

‘Violent assault Friday evening, caught on CCTV camera, victim in a coma. If you have information, please telephone this number.’ I hated cruel and random acts of violence and hoped the police would find him soon.

I exited the pub close to being half-rats, a phrase that means intoxicated. If Gemma was not here, I’d get advice elsewhere. I set off down the road, heading on the way to Holloway Underground.

One night on a drinking bout in Holloway, early in a ragged morning, the sky a dilute, inky blur, Gemma pointed out her workplace, a bordello down Hornsey Road. We’d been walking hand in hand that night, but I accepted our friendship was platonic. Gemma was enamoured of a surfer, and before that with a gangster. Her ‘type’ did not include myself.

Now I felt impatient, awkward, restless. I had to speak to someone of my proposition. I arrived outside the brothel where Gemma usually worked, as if my legs had got me there of their own accord while I’d been lost in thought. I surveyed the threshold taciturn, the wedged-shut-looking doorway of the premises. Above the door, a fractured sign was strobing as if it were a beacon of distress. It said ‘Pleasure City. Sauna, jacuzzi, massage.’ The building looked skilamalink, a bygone word for secret, shady, doubtful. Gemma had told me of her colleague Melanie, another dominatrix. Now it was to Melanie that my thoughts were turning. I assumed she’d share the traits of Gemma: her pragmatism and her candour, her patrician sensibility. Surely she’d advise me?

I pressed the bell and saw a shadow at the spyhole before the door opened to reveal a shambling doorman. He had a fly rink. He’d also copped a mouse, an expression meaning to receive a black eye. The man looked irritable, but no more irritable than a Rottweiler might have done if chained up for an hour or two, salivating at a plate of chocolate biscuits. His face looked like the mugshot on the poster in The Lamb, but could he be that same cove? I was far from certain, in part because he’d copped that mouse. The man said, ‘Have you come here for some nanty narking?’

He used a bygone phrase, signifying fun. I’d prepared for this response. I knew that the man would not let me in to have an idle chat. I was going to have to play the role of customer. It was unfortunate that I had no other way of contacting Melanie. The doorman said, ‘Don’t be all poked up, my friend.’

By that I knew he was admonishing me for appearing too embarrassed. I said, ‘I’m just looking for a good time. I only want some nanty narking.’

The man looked me up and down. ‘You appreciate this is a massage parlour?’

I nodded my head and he tilted his head to indicate I should go in. I squeezed in past his bulk, as the bouncer surveyed the street beyond and then withdrew his mighty frame back into the premises and closed the door behind us both. I knew there was no going back.

A woman with blonde fringed hair sat behind the reception desk. She said, ‘That’ll be fifty pounds, okay? Have you been before? Which therapist would you like to see?’

‘Therapist’ had gravitas. I liked the term. But I guessed the woman didn’t like her job. She didn’t show enthuzimuzzy.

‘No, I’ve not been before but I’d like to book a session, with the therapist called Melanie.’

The receptionist nodded her assent. I paid the money upfront at the desk.

She said, ‘Go through there and take the first door on the right. Then take the steps down to the basement.’

I pushed through coloured streamers of polythene and went into the corridor, then took the first door on the right.

The light down in the basement was a rosy glow. Confronting me, fanned out on the wall, was an array of pitiless whips, in a range of sizes. The sight of the whips disturbed me, as did the tray of metal implements on the low table below. Someone walked out from a shadowed corner. And I realised this woman was not at all like Gemma, or nothing like the Gemma that I knew from meetings in the pub. Melanie was ice-eyed and scowling, her forehead an entanglement of lines, recording anger or distress. Each line on her forehead resembled a barb or fishhook. I felt my palms begin to sweat and became tongue-tied. She said, ‘Don’t look at me as if I am a dollymop. This is my profession. Now tell me what you want.’

‘I’ve come for a consultation if that would be alright?’

‘Get over there. Have a shower. Put that robe on, and clean yourself, you wretched little worm.’

‘This isn’t actually as it seems. I’ve just come here to pick your brains.’

‘What did you just say to me?’

I could not speak.

‘We haven’t got all day, I’ve got further customers, you wretched scrag end of a man.’

‘I’ve come here to get advice and…’

‘Don’t sell me a dog.’

By that I knew she meant don’t lie to her. She sneered and said, ‘I know your type. You’re carrying out research. Or someone dared you to come in here. Go and have a shower and then we’ll get it over with.’

‘But Gemma told me that she knew you.’

‘Damfino who this Gemma is.’

I gulped. If she didn’t know Gemma, this probably wasn’t Melanie. By damfino I presumed she meant damned if I know. Was I even in the correct house of correction? Suddenly, despite my attempt at silent levity, I felt profoundly out of my depth. I had to ask the question before it was too late. I said, ‘Where can I get a uniform, one for keeping bees?’

‘Get out now. I’m calling him upstairs.’

I stood my ground, a sailor going down with a sinking ship whilst whittling one last elegant piece of ivory. Or the hero in the last reel of a 1950s science fiction film: Attack of the Giant Killer Bees. And I didn’t want to seem a meater, meaning that I wouldn’t be a coward. The woman sneered and pressed a button on the wall beside the table of metallic implements. I heard a bell ring somewhere in the innards of the crumbling building.

The door opened. The huge doorman filled the doorway. The woman said, ‘Throw him out.’

I wasn’t going to let them get rid of me as if I were some piece of garbage, and I dropped down and grabbed onto the bouncer’s leg. He pulled me back up to my feet. My whittling knife fell out of my pocket and clattered on the floor. I swept up the knife and pointed it at the cove whose expression flashed from hatred to focused concentration.

My back faced the dominatrix, the one who was not Melanie. I heard a rustling movement from behind and there was a sudden cracking sound, a blur of motion passing over my left shoulder. I thought someone had shot me. I turned around to see the woman brandishing a whip. Her eyes were wide, her pupils were two voids, and she held one hand across her mouth. A scream of pain came from the man. I swivelled back to see him clawing with one hand against his face. His other hand was holding something. My psyche tried to slam a door against the truth. But still I retched then vomited as blood seeped out between his fingers, fingers spread across his vacant eye socket.

My nightmares had been more than mere obsession. They had been a premonition. The blurred motion of the whip followed by that awful scream of agony.

Turning round again, I saw the woman picking up a leather bag.

She raced towards the door that led upstairs and I ran out after her. There was no one at reception. She jumped out through the doorway and she screamed at me, ‘You fool, he’ll kill us both now.’

‘Can you not explain to him? You were trying to stop me, flick the knife from out of my hand. It’s only me he’ll punish.’

‘No, he saw your blade. Then the whip disfigured him. It looks too organised.’

As the woman turned, she said, ‘If I see you again, you’re dead, you understand me?’

In the murky hours of that dawn, I lay in my bedsit, in the labyrinthine insect colony of tenants, and listened to the rain, tapping on the basement window. I abhorred acts of violence, yet I had been responsible for the horror in the brothel. And there would be consequences. Guilt clawed at my mind. Looping thoughts of self-chastisement would never let me rest. I knew the guilt and fear would never go away. I got down on the threadbare carpet, on all fours, and thrashed my head in desperation against the wooden floorboards. Outside on the doorstep, up above my basement window, someone was knocking on the door.

Ruairi MacInnes lives in London. He is currently working on several short stories and also writes and plays the guitar.

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The Doctor’s Bookshelf

She sat in her oncologist’s office, waiting for him to return. He scheduled a meeting at 7 pm on a Tuesday afternoon. She didn’t know why, but had a guess.

He told her he would be back in just few minutes.

The room had pictures of papers on the wall, all sorts of degrees and certifications. She never bothered inspecting them further. There was one painting of a meadow that covered one wall, just enough to be aesthetic. She enjoyed staring at this painting to let her mind rest.

She sat in an old wooden chair on a faded green cushion. Across from her sat the doctor’s empty faux black leather office chair. A large blocky wooden desk separated the two, it had a small pile of papers neatly stacked in the center.

One more empty chair was placed with care in the corner of the room. This used to be her chair.

A bookshelf covered one of the walls. It was filled; some books looking unopened like they existed simply to impress, while other books were tattered and beaten like they had collected years of experience.

She eased her way out of her chair. Her muscles ached. Her bones creaked. She had grown familiar with these aches and creaks.

She walked over to the bookshelf and began looking at the books. Each time she came to an interesting title, she picked it out. She looked at it and flipped through the pages, searching for nothing of significance. She put the book back and continued through the books on the shelves.

The doctor walked through the door and she gave him a soft smile. She had seen him enough times that she didn’t feel the need to give a formal greeting.

“Good evening, Mrs. Joie,” the doctor said.

She looked over at him. She dipped her head to see him through her true eyes, rather than her spectacles, and smiled again, with a book in her hand.

“I see you’ve taken a liking to my books.”

“I’ve taken a liking to your bookshelf,” she said as she slid the book back into place. The doctor sat at the desk with one foot up. He had a pen in his hand and clicked it several times.

“I think there should be a bookshelf in every home,” she said.

“Why’s that?”

“Bookshelves can tell so much about a person.”

“Oh?” the doctor said. “Then what does my bookshelf say about me?”

Mrs. Joie didn’t speak for a long time. She looked at a book, The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom. The cover had faded and torn. She would have thrown the cover away by now, but he kept it. She noticed how perfect the book looked beneath the cover, no dust, no scratches, beneath the cover the book had never seen the real world.

“John,” she said.


“What kind of books do you think are on my bookshelf? At home.”

The doctor didn’t know how to respond, he looked at her for a moment in thought.

“You’ve known me for three years now, John.”

“Well, are the books only yours? Or are they Robert’s as well?”

“We shared our books like we shared our lives,” she said.

The doctor sighed and looked over to his bookshelf. He thought for a moment.

“Let’s get down to business, Mrs. Joie.”

“You’re just trying to get out of my question.” She smiled at him as she turned around to walk back to her chair. The doctor considered helping her back to her chair, but decided not to bother. She took her seat and began to look around the room, careful not to make eye contact.

“How have you been doing?” the doctor asked.

“I’ve been well.”

“Have you been feeling okay? No physical problems?”

“None. I feel as spry as a puppy at dinnertime.”

“That’s wonderful news!”

“Just wonderful,” she mimicked. Her aged smile shone with confidence; the smile of somebody who lives only to share her memories. Someone who has experienced both love and suffering. Someone who knows the value of life.

The doctor had a pain in his chest. He wanted to cry, but couldn’t. He didn’t know where the pain had come from and didn’t want to make himself vulnerable to it. “I have a question for you,” he asked.


“You know, I have to be honest when I say, this surgery isn’t a smart idea.”

“That’s not a question,” she interrupted.

The doctor laughed and dropped his foot from the desk. He leaned forward and laced his fingers, resting on his elbows. He looked at her, still unable to make eye contact. “Why do you want to go through with this surgery?”

“I’m in pain,” she said.

“You just told me you were feeling as spry as a puppy at dinnertime.”

“I’m in pain, John.”

She looked at him and her eyes connected with his.

He nodded to himself with a frown. He looked at his computer. She could see its reflection in his eyes. “You’re a kind man. Cultured and intelligent, John. You want only the best for others. It’s why you do this horrible job. So that you can help people. People like me, people like Robert. You want everyone else’s smile to be brighter than your own,” she said.

The doctor’s fingers stopped typing and his eyes froze. Only for a moment, then she continued. “Your bookshelf told me that,” she said. “Without Robert, my memories are the only thing that keep this smile on my face. My smile will dull with time, John.”

She reached her hand out for his and embraced it. She smiled at him one last time. A smile tried to breach his face, but he contained it. She stood up. The doctor thought to help her up, but continued staring at his computer. She walked out and the door shut behind her.

Robert Ruzicka is a recent graduate in Environmental Science from CSU Channel Islands. He grew up in Southern California with a dormant interest in poetry and fiction. His interests awoke his junior year of college after taking a class in Environmental Writing. Since then he’s written two novels, many short stories and poems, and is working to get some of these pieces published.

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The Oven

The day Cynthia Bonner put her head in the oven would have been her thirtieth wedding anniversary. In an attempt to put nervous energy to good use, create form from chaos, she baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies. She had tried for twenty-seven years to convince Dallas to eat these cookies, but he turned his nose up at sweets and claimed he hated chocolate. So today she allowed herself this one act of aggression, cooking his least favorite food three years after it ceased to matter.

Reaching into the oven to retrieve the tray, she caught a whiff of the faintly eggy gas. She inhaled longer than intended and took a moment to savor the odor, the way a first-grader might sniff each marker before putting it in the box. She sat the cookie tray on the stovetop, turned off the pilot light and dropped to her knees, plunging her head into the maw. When the first signs of intoxication—a blank spot in her consciousness, a woozy dip of the head—hit her, she reacted violently, slamming the oven door and pushing herself backward, crashing into the island at the same moment the tray slid from the stove, launching the cookies in a dozen astral trajectories, their melted chocolate streaking the floor behind them.

Nauseous, breathing heavily, patting her arms and legs, she got up and turned off the range before going to the back yard for air. Bo, her Jack Russell, eyed her as he grunted out a dump by the back porch step. A plane flew overhead, angling toward the runway two miles south of her house, kids from somewhere down the street yelled and hooted and hollered and from the kitchen her phone played its awful guitar loop of a ringtone she couldn’t figure out how to change. She rushed inside to see an unfamiliar number and answered it to be greeted by the automated yet enthusiastic voice of a young lady asking her to participate in a poll. And thank God for waterproof cases because by the time she hung up the phone, it might as well have been dropped in the ocean.

Saddened and disturbed by the half-hearted attempt on her own life, Cynthia became obsessed with the fact that if she died no one would miss her. She considered a list of punishments—cutting her hair over the bathroom sink, eating the dirty chocolate chip cookies off the kitchen floor, throwing her phone into the glass door of the menagerie on the living room wall, digging the revolver out of the dresser drawer and firing six rounds into the breast pocket of a shirt Dallas had left behind. Her failure to do any of this sent her further down the spiral. She needed to talk, and finally concocted an excuse to call her friend Beverly Ricks, the only church friend who knew the more intimate details of her divorce.

After Beverly’s hello, Cynthia wasn’t sure what to say. She opened the door and let Bo totter in between her feet.

“Cynthia. Honey?”

“I’m here,” she said. “Sorry. I’m letting Bo in.”

“Oh, it’s okay. I’m in no hurry. Just loading grocery bags by myself. I’m amazed they can find the money to remodel, but can’t pay for good help.”

Cynthia and Beverly joked often about the town grocery’s renovations, the south’s last remaining Piggly Wiggly reinventing itself as a poor man’s Whole Foods.

“One thing at a time, you know,” Cynthia said.

On Beverly’s end a car door slammed, an engine cranked. “So what are you into today?”

Cynthia paused to acknowledge the humor of the question. “Nothing much. Just some cleaning. Reason I called was, I had a question about the business meeting tonight.”


“Is something wrong?”

“Well,” Beverly said. “You mean the church business meeting?”


“Well, honey…it’s Tuesday. Business meeting is Thursday night.”

“Oh.” Cynthia shuffled around her living room, her flip-flops clomping across the wood floor.

“You sure everything’s okay?”

“Oh! Yes. Absolutely. I just—I’ve always gotten Tuesday and Thursday mixed up. Who knows what I was thinking.”

Car noise. Radio static. “What are you doing for lunch?”

“Oh—Beverly? I have a call coming in. It’s probably Meg. Let’s get lunch tomorrow. Okay?”

She tossed the phone on the couch and turned her attention to the kitchen. Bo stood where the cookies had been scattered across the floor, the last remaining chocolate streak disappearing under his tongue. Cynthia faced her second moral crisis of the day.

Bo’s unceasing presence compounded the pain of her antiversary (as her son Allen called it). Dallas waited patiently through the expiration of two cats before she gave in to his lifelong wish of owning a dog. For years she suffered the repeated explanations and sad-sack history of Dallas’s dogless youth due to an allergic little sister. He spent hours and days and years extolling the alleged virtues of dogs over cats, loyalty always at the top of his list.

“Besides,” he said once. “I can’t trust an animal that shits in the house.”

She smiled. “Allen is disgusting. But he’ll grow out of it in a few years.”

And so on his birthday five years ago, Dallas came home with a Jack Russell puppy under his arm. He amended it with a weekend shopping spree in Houston for her birthday. The proximity of these celebrations—his birthday June 10, hers on the fifteenth, and their anniversary on the twentieth—underscored today’s difficulty. For twenty-seven years, it had been a source of humor and comfort. The kids always liked knocking out three birds with one stone, usually a dinner or cookout, and many times over the years Cynthia and Dallas enjoyed a weeklong vacation to celebrate.

At the time, she excused the purchase of the dog as a newly fifty-year-old man indulging a childhood wish. Two years later, she came to see it as an obscene gesture of defiance, along with his leaving it with her when he moved out. Dallas pointed to his new apartment complex’s no-pets policy, which hurt her in an unexpected way. He didn’t leave to be with someone else. He left to get away from her.

Bo had spent his fair share of nights outside over the past three years, his fair share of humid afternoons pawing at the back door. She sometimes sent him off for a weekend at Meg’s house, and secretly wished he might run away or maybe even fall victim to some tragic mishandling by the twins. She never articulated this wish, but did pray that her grandkids be spared any guilt.

She watched him lick up the last of the chocolate, then sprayed a wet towel with kitchen cleaner and wiped down the floor. Bo stood by the oven twitching and pacing side to side, his pink nose and white fur at the corners of his mouth smeared brown. Cynthia knew something needed to be done, but couldn’t say what. She had never even taken him to the vet. She retrieved the twins’ old baby gate from the laundry room, locked it into the door frame, and in the split second it took to register the sound of her phone ringing yet again, Bo jumped the gate and began licking her shoes.


“Mama. Where are you? Are you home?” The pitch of Meg’s voice modulated depending on her mood. Cynthia could tell she was worried.

“I’m at the house.”

“We’ll be there in a second.” She hung up before Cynthia could put her off.

When the kids were little they would play by themselves for hours, but the click of the bathroom door or the crackle of a potato chip bag drew them like a siren. She wondered how far into adulthood that extended, and whether Meg’s coffee tasted like gas this morning, or if she woke up spooning the ghost of her own absentee spouse.

She huffed at Bo and pushed him back toward the laundry room with her foot, taking up the gate and closing the door behind him. She scanned the kitchen for evidence, washed and dried the cookie tray, double-checked the floor, made sure all of the knobs on the range were straight. The mirror in the hall revealed a horror show—chocolate smeared on one cheek, melted mascara, and a small strip of dirty-blond hair seared a jagged black. With no time to grieve for it, she retrieved a pair of kitchen shears from the utensil drawer and removed the dead strands. By the time the front door opened—they refused to ring the doorbell—her face was clean, and her burnt hair masked by a strategically placed barrette. She did her best to appear to be in the middle of something important.

The twins rushed into the hallway flanking Meg, scouting the house for toys or candy.

Cynthia met them in the hall. “Hey. What are y’all doing today?”

Meg stood in front of the open door, her eyes crawling Cynthia up and down, glancing up the stairs, her head shifting on her neck to inspect the living room. “We were just going grocery shopping. Maybe to eat. Are you okay?”

Cynthia’s reply to this simple question began with a face she’d seen Meg make hundreds of times as a teenager, what Dallas called the who-what-me. It started with a comically shocked expression, retracting the head and bugging the eyes, followed by looking around as if there were someone else in the room. For the finishing flourish the accused placed an open palm on their chest.

“I’m fine.” She waved Meg in and reached behind her to close the door. “Why do you ask if I’m okay?”

Meg stepped into the living room, tossed her purse onto an armchair, and lifted her head to locate the sounds of the twins coming from the kitchen. “Dottie! Max! No snacks. We’re going to get lunch soon.” She looked at Cynthia, shook her head, and went to find them.

Cynthia walked the hall and entered the kitchen from the side. Max stood on tiptoes on a barstool pushed up against the refrigerator with Dottie spotting him, holding the stool’s legs. Cynthia learned many years ago to never underestimate the resourcefulness and determination of a four-year-old. She watched in silence as Meg asked them what they were doing, watched Max’s mop of almost-black hair flop around his head as he jumped to the ground, Dottie’s ponytail wag back and forth as she scraped the stool across the hardwood floor and back to the counter. Cynthia felt a wave of headache and nausea pulse through her, and took small steps to sit at the island.

Meg sniffed. “Did you make cookies?” She looked at the kids. “Is that what you two were looking for?”

“I did. But they’re for church.” She shrugged at the kids. “I sent them off with Mrs. Beverly. I can get you something else to eat.”

“No,” Meg said. “We’re about to get lunch.”

“Why don’t you just eat here? It’s almost eleven o’clock.” She spoke to the kids, “I’ve got some of your favorite spaghetti left over from last night.”

She heard the soft tick-tick of Bo’s nails working at the underside of the laundry room door and jumped from the stool, clanging silverware and clattering plates. The roar of the microwave provided cover for a couple minutes. When the kids settled in to their lunch, Cynthia nodded to Meg, satisfied with her performance so far.

Her daughter did not look impressed. “Mama, can I talk to you for a minute?” On the back porch, watching the kids through the door’s glass, she asked, “What’s going on?”

Cynthia started with the who-what-me again, but caught herself and patted nervously at her hair. “Why do you keep asking me these questions? I’m fine and nothing is going on.”

Meg crossed her arms, glanced at the kids. Another plane moved overhead, this time south to north, taking off. “Mrs. Beverly came over this morning and picked up cookies?”


Meg’s eyes peered through whatever thin veil Cynthia had drawn. Her girl had a pretty, round face, with Dallas’s dark hair and relentlessly serious eyes. Having an only daughter take so much after her father bothered Cynthia in a way she could never put a finger on.

“Okay. Well, the reason we stopped by is because Mrs. Beverly called me to check on you.”

“She what? Who?”

“She called me. Said she was on the phone with you and you were acting a little…out of sorts. I think that was her word. So when I acted confused—I didn’t know what she was talking about—she said you got off the phone with her to take my call.”

Cynthia uncrossed her arms and began straightening the potted herbs on the porch rail. It was so hard to keep chives looking decent. Basil and mint were no problem, but chives would turn brown in an afternoon. “I think I remember that.”

Meg puckered her face, poked her head forward. “Remember what?”

“You calling me.”

Meg shook her head rapidly, stepped to her mother and put a hand on each shoulder. “Mama. I only called you after Mrs. Beverly called me. So either you were mistaken, or you made it up to get off the phone.”

“Are you grilling me? Is this how it used to feel when I would get after you about some mysterious Saturday night?”

“I just want to make sure you’re okay. It’s not like you to lie about little things.”

Cynthia noted the qualifier.

Meg squinted into her eyes. “Your pupils are dilated. Did you take something?”

“Why don’t you and the kids get off to lunch?”

She remembered the spaghetti as the words came out of her mouth, and braced herself for another pulse of nausea. There were already too many details to keep straight. Through the door she saw Bo’s hind end on the island counter as he licked spaghetti sauce residue from Max’s plate. She rushed into the kitchen and swept up the dog, lobbing him back into the laundry room, where he tripped and skidded into the dryer.

“He was crying to get out,” Dottie said.

Cynthia closed the door. “Well, he needs to stay put up. He’s sick.”

“Sick?” Meg set the kids’ empty dishes in the sink. “What’s wrong with him?”

Cynthia absentmindedly patted at her hair again, rubbed her stomach. She tried to still Meg’s swaying, but lost her balance completely when Dottie and Max extended upward and out, grew feet in seconds, their heads expanding and wobbling like water balloons.

She woke to the sound of men clearing their throats. Before opening her eyes, she felt around for a sense of where she was and identified the cool leather and raised stitching of the living room couch. She heard the sounds of children crying, and had her breath taken by a putrid sewer-stench. When she felt a hand rest on her foot, she opened her eyes to Allen sitting on the coffee table. Beyond him, in the kitchen, shapes and shadows scurried back and forth.

“What happened?” she said.

“You fainted.”

Cynthia had always been struck by her son’s handsomeness. He was tall, ruddy, with her dirty-blond hair wavy and cut short. Over the last six years, he had slimmed up and acquired the stature of a Navy man. He finished his time just last month and his plans to find a place hadn’t materialized. He had been staying mostly at his dad’s apartment, and spent a couple of nights here at the house.

“When did you get here?” she said.

“Just a minute ago. Meg called us.”

She sat up slowly, holding her head on her neck. “What is that smell?”

Allen put his hands on his knees and turned toward the kitchen. “Bo…crapped everywhere.”

“Did I hit my head?”

“I don’t think so. Meg said you just lay down on the kitchen floor. That’s where we found you.”

“Who is this ‘we’ you keep talking about?”

“Dad. Me and dad.”

She wanted to black out again, to plunge her head back into the oven—not to die, but to see if maybe it led to some better place, and she could disappear and come back with everything reset.

Allen handed her a glass of water, then went to the kitchen. She could tell now that the sounds of the kids were coming from upstairs. She heard Meg running water, pleading with someone to just sit still. Dallas appeared in the doorway to the kitchen, wiping his hands on an old towel. The sunlight from the windows behind him kept his face dark and out of focus. She couldn’t gauge how mad or put out he might be. He stepped into the living room, his features becoming visible in the artificial light. He was not a tall man, but he carried himself like a giant.

“Are you okay?” He sat down on the end of the couch, his weight a gravity pulling her toward him.

“I’m not sure. I feel okay. But I’m afraid to stand up.”

“What’s wrong with Bo?”

She shrugged. “He was feeling bad earlier, whining and grunting, like his stomach wasn’t right.”

“Well. He made a mess all over your kitchen. I’ve cleaned up most of it, but—”

He was cut off by the dog releasing a painful hellhound moan so wrenching it sounded human—a plea to either help or put him out of his misery.

“Dad!” Allen said. “Get in here.”

Cynthia followed Dallas to the kitchen taking baby steps. Her stomach was settled, but her head felt beat in. On the kitchen floor, near the laundry room door, Bo lay twitching, all four legs extended as if transmitting high voltage. His already buggy eyes protruded from their sockets. They looked like they might pop.

Allen took a step back. “What the hell.”

“Cynthia,” Dallas said. “What is wrong with him?”

She assessed how much truth she could safely tell. “Okay. He ate a batch of chocolate chip cookies.”

“He what?”

“I left them on the stove to cool. When I came back in here, he’d knocked them to the floor and eaten them all.”

“How many is ‘all’?”

“Twelve. Fifteen. A bunch.”

Dallas put a hand to his head and quickly removed it, examining it for filth. Allen backed out of Cynthia’s peripheral vision until he disappeared. She heard his footsteps down the hall and up the stairs. She watched Dallas, examining his jeans and T-shirt, his boots.

“Where have you been this morning?” she asked.

His look hurt her more than anything he could have said. “We were fishing.”


“Allen. Me and Allen.”

She nodded. “I just didn’t know you liked to go fishing.”

Dallas wiped his hands again on the towel and looked around at the remaining diarrheic residue. “He likes to.”

“Oh. That’s nice. It’s nice of you to spend time with him.”

“You say it like it’s work.”

Bo groaned and passed his remaining gas. His hind legs kicked, propelling him forward an inch or two. A kid wailed in the hallway and Allen yelled for them not to go in the kitchen.

Dallas knelt down. “What vet have you been taking him to? Still using Willis?”

“Yes. But it’s been a while.”

He looked up at her with a father’s face. “Have you ever taken him?”

She shook her head.

He sighed. “Cynthia.”

He stood, dug his phone from his pocket and searched it for a number. He tapped the screen once or twice and put the phone to his ear as Bo threw his head back and in one final moan tensed, relaxed, and became nothing. Cynthia knew dogs didn’t have souls, and thought how sweet death must be for them, how comforting the thought of oblivion. She could never admit to her church friends how much the prospect of eternal life frightened her.

The buzzing on the other end of the phone stopped, cut off by a pleasant voice. “Never mind,” Dallas said, and put the phone away. He didn’t look at her as he dug a trash bag out from under the sink and carefully pulled Bo’s corpse into it.

The split second she took her eyes off Dallas, she made the mistake of looking at Bo’s face. She remembered seeing a dead turtle once as a kid, its neck extended from its shell, its head and face frozen in rictus. It disturbed her so much she didn’t sleep right for days afterward. She knew now that when she laid her head down tonight all she would see would be Bo’s gigantic eyes.

As Dallas stood tying the bag, Meg’s voice filled the kitchen, exploring new sonic territory. “Are you kidding me?”

Dallas raised a hand. “Baby. Just keep the kids—”

But it was too late. The kids stood beside her, Max with his jaw on the floor, Dottie burying her face in her mom’s jeans. Allen appeared behind her, his hand on his sister’s shoulder. Such a sweet picture, Cynthia thought. The first time they’d all been under the same roof since the twins were born.

“You killed the dog?” Meg yelled. “You killed the dog!”

The kids’ cries rang out in unison. Meg knelt and gathered them in her arms, Allen hovering over them looking unsure about what a good uncle was supposed to do.

Without thinking about what it might communicate, Cynthia leaned forward onto the island, her aching head in one hand. She felt the room spin a few degrees left and overcorrected, went bobbling down the length of the island, holding on to it for dear life. She stopped at the end nearest her kids, gripped the edge of the granite counter and looked bleary-eyed back and forth between them and Dallas.

She heard Meg gasp, half-whisper, “What’s wrong with her?”

Allen walked over, put a hand on her shoulder and examined her face. “We need to take her to the doctor.”

She would swear she heard Dallas sigh. He left Bo’s body bag on the floor and came to her. “Cynthia. Can you walk? We need to get you to the truck.”

Behind her, Meg said, “The van would be easier. We’ll come too.” Something in Dallas’s face must have convinced her of the severity of the situation.

“How was she when you got here?”

“Not good. Not this bad, but not good. Her eyes.”

Cynthia’s head swayed in the cradle of her hands while they talked about her like she wasn’t there. The men guided her, one under each arm, out to the van. Allen went back inside to help gather the kids while Dallas seated her and helped her with the belt. She put a hand on his forearm, the first time her hands had touched him in three years, and tried to smile.

“Happy anniversary.”

He said nothing, only looked at her, into her. His eyes searched her face, stopping momentarily on the barrette in her hair. His lips parted and she could almost see the words prepared to come out of his mouth before he shook his head and closed the door.

She watched the familiar scene in silence, Allen dragging behind Meg, his head down in his phone that might as well have been a video game, her arms around the twins that might as well have been stuffed dolls. They filed into the van without talking—muted sobs and clicking seatbelts the only sounds.

Dallas lifted a heavy arm to the ignition. “Everybody in?”

She mouthed the words with him, tried to smile but it hurt her head. It felt so nice to have everybody together again. She leaned against the window and watched the house recede, the backyard trees rising above it, a plane coming in for a landing.

Matt McDonald is from northeast Louisiana. He works in higher education, and is a musician and former high school English teacher. After chasing down and wounding a novel, he has recently returned to writing short fiction. His work has appeared in Loud Zoo.

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