Volume 9 Spring 2021
Uproar is the literary/arts magazine of Lone Star College-University Park. Any
LSC-University Park student may submit work or join the staff. See the submis-
sion requirements and form at the back of the magazine for more information.
Faculty Advisors: Amy Young
Advisory Board: Jona Anderson Chelsea Davis-Bibb
Paula Khalaf Sarah Ray
Student Editors: Hannah Beach Emily Goff
And Staff Steffie Moy
Contest Judges: Kristen Khalaf David Miller
Greg Oaks Roger Rodriguez
Art Judge: Kari Breitigam
Cover Art: “Train Station Collage” Johnson Nguyen
Table of Contents 1
The Effects of Carmen by Brysa Ward (Second Place Prose) 5
Papi Luis by Viviana Camarillo (Second Place Poetry) 10
Lost (in) Time by Lindsay Miller 11
Storytime by Hannah Beach 19
Moving On by Andi Doty 20
Half Price Books by Emily Goff (First Place Poetry) 22
People Can’t Choose Their Children, Either by Maryam Khan 23
Old Sleepy Bunny by Steffie Moy (Tie Third Place Poetry) 27
Little Things by Emma Lev 28
Marlboro Nights by Vanessa Aguirre 32
Any Story I Would Have Told by Alec Talenta (Third Place Prose) 33
Our Backs are Accustomed to the Cold by Mateo Latapie Trenkenchu 37
Pink Pointe by Sophia Sierra Quintero 38
Choleric by Cheri Winters 39
Eyes without a Face by Angie Grajales Villada 40
Rome by Edna Corona 41
Candid Self-Portrait by Johnson Nguyen 42
Self-Portrait by Angie Grajalas Villada 43
Manere Auream by Amy Young 44
I fill up by James Kahla 48
The Matchmaker by Emily Goff (First Place Prose)
A Poem for the Ships Still Stuck at the Dock by Walter Zogg
Murder in the First Degree by Hannah Beach 49
Sweet Ending by Cheri Winters 52
Situation & Circumstance by Zoila Espinoza 53
Aquarium by Steffie Moy 57
No Surprises by Christian Gonzalez 58
A Letter To You by Quetzalli Guadalupe 60
In the Dark by Vanessa Aguirre 61
Arbol by Mateo Latapie Trenkenchu 65
The Itch by Alec Talenta 66
Shutters of Light by Dorian Scott 67
For You, I Would Sleep in (a Bed of Nails) by James Kahla (Tie Third Place Poetry) 70
Smoke by Gabriela DeLa Puente 72
Al cruzar el naranjal by Viviana Camarillo 76
Acknowledgements and Submission Guidelines 78
Submission Form 79
The Effects of Carmen
When Leon Escudier wrote that Bizet's Carmen was dull and obscure, he clearly never listened to it
while initiating a fight at an art opening. Then again, neither had I. However, I have witnessed a scuffle set to
the tune of Bizet's Carmen, and I have to say, it was incredible.
It was a breezy summer evening, and I had the misfortune of being dragged to an art opening by my
best friend, Zane. At the time, he was deep in his pretentious hipster phase, complete with a handlebar mus-
tache, Master’s in Art History, and a collection of "vintage" vinyl records.
I, on the other hand, was working a job at a sporting goods store. This obviously was not my “dream
job.” It was quite the opposite, actually; working there was utterly soul sucking. Day in and day out, I talked
to people about sports while the same contrived playlist played on the speakers over and over and over again.
If I had it my way, I’d be playing at the city’s concert hall. However, I knew I got started in music too late to
ever achieve this dream. But it was fine. Totally not bitter at all.
When we got to the gallery, I was astounded to discover that the pieces were little more than finger
paintings. I was even more astounded when Zane told me that the finger paintings were going for thousands
"You've got to be shitting me," I said, pinching the bridge of my nose.
Zane gasped. "These are by Lyonel Reeds. He's a god among modernist artists. We're lucky to even
be in the presence of his work," he said, shaking his head.
"Whatever you say, but if I wanted to see finger paintings I could go hang out with my sister's kids,"
I replied. I wrapped my sweater around myself in an attempt to combat the biting cold of the gallery.
"I need a drink," Zane sighed and lumbered off to the drinks table, his Timberland boots echoing on
the wood floor.
I walked aimlessly around the gallery, taking in the finger paintings. I will admit that the gallery did
choose wonderful music for the event. Among the chatter of patrons, the likes of Tchaikovsky, Liszt, and
Chopin graced my ears.
Just as Bizet's Carmen began, I heard shouting. I turned in time to see a middle-aged man tackle a
younger man to the ground. They began rolling on the floor, punching, and kicking each other.
It was at this moment that Zane came back to my side, two glasses of white wine in hand.
"You know what they're fighting about?" I asked.
"I'm pretty sure the young guy bought a painting out from under the old dude," Zane replied, handing
me one of the glasses.
I narrowed my eyes. "Are all art openings like this?" I asked.
"If I say yes, will that make you want to come to more galleries with me?" he asked.
"Obviously," I replied, grinning.
Zane rolled his eyes and suppressed a smile of his own. "Ten bucks says the young guy kicks the old
"You're on," I replied, sipping my wine. "With how pissed the old guy is, he's totally gonna win."
A middle-aged man came up to us. "I'll take that action, but make it twenty on the old guy," he said,
nodding his head toward the fight. His slightly grey hair was disheveled. He wore a brown, wrinkled suit. The
tie was loose, and the top buttons of his shirt were unbuttoned.
I heard Zane gasp and glanced over. His eyes widened. Zane’s reaction to the man reminded me of
the time he found out the Renaissance Fair was coming to town.
“You-you’re Lyonel Reeds!” Zane stated, swaying. I quickly placed a hand on his arm to steady him
so he wouldn’t pass out from excitement.
The man, Lyonel Reeds, gave a slight laugh, stuffing his hands in his pockets. “Yeah. Kind of anti-
climactic, huh?” he said, shrugging.
“No, not at all! I’m a big fan. Though it may be a little derivative of Howell’s early years. But to say
your work is anything short of revolutionary would be straight up blasphemy,” Zane said in a rush.
“Zane, Sweetie,” I said, “Remember what we said about breathing while discussing art. You’ll have
to pardon my dear unfortunate friend, Mr. Reeds. Zane, here, gets super excited about art.”
“No, no. It’s fine. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought that same thing myself,” Lyonel Reeds re-
plied, shrugging his shoulders. “I know you’re Zane. What’s your name?” he asked me, extending his hand.
“Oh, it’s Ruby,” I replied, shaking his hand.
At this point, security had pulled the two men off each other and dragged them out of the gallery.
“As the show is clearly over,” Lyonel said, “I think I’m gonna grab a bite. You guys are welcome to join me
if you’d like.”
Zane nearly jumped out of his skin. “Yes! Absolutely! We’d love to.”
“Awesome.” Lyonel replied. “I know a place right around the corner.”
As we walked down the street, Zane monopolized the conversation with Lyonel. They discussed var-
ious forms of art and artists with Zane intermittently twisting his mustache. I, on the other hand, opted to tune
them out, mentally playing Chopin’s “Mazurka in F Major.” I really wished I’d worn different shoes; those
heels were murder on my feet.
We finally arrived at a hole-in-the-wall burger joint. The restaurant was empty except for us. The
floor was checkered with black and white tile and the yellow lights were turned down. I would assume this
was done to give the place a sense of ambiance. The dining room was scattered with basic wooden tables,
each with mismatched chairs. Some had cushions, some were ornately carved, and some were just “plain
When we took our seats at a small round table, I couldn’t suppress my question any longer. “Excuse
me, Mr. Reeds. What exactly is the method in which you create your masterpieces?” I asked, leaning my el-
bows on the table.
“Don’t listen to her, Mr. Reeds,” Zane said, waving me off. “She just doesn’t understand the beauty
of art. The skill, the years of honing your talent, the sheer genius that accompanies great artists.”
“Actually,” Lyonel said, leaning back in his red leather chair. “I typically get plastered and splatter
paint onto canvases.”
It took everything in me not to burst out laughing, especially when I saw the look on Zane’s face. I
swear you could practically hear his heart breaking. I think that Lyonel saw the same thing because he then
“In my twenties, I tried my best to get noticed. I tried every style and every medium, but nothing
worked. I finally got so fed up that I chugged half a bottle of absinthe and unleashed everything that I was
feeling onto a few canvases. They were massive hits and I just kind of kept doing that,” Lyonel said coolly.
“If I had known grown men would be fighting over my paintings someday, I would’ve done it a lot sooner.”
Silence enveloped our table. While Zane sulked quietly, intermittently sipping from his black coffee,
Lyonel and I just sat there awkwardly eating our burgers.
“You know,” I finally said. “If you wanted to up the drama at your openings, you should introduce
auctions. Imagine how many fights that’d start.”
He stared at me for a few minutes, a blank expression evident on his face. He then burst out laughing
and pretty soon I joined in as well. Zane looked between us and finally burrowed his head in his hands.
“It was a mistake to bring you along,” Zane lamented.
Lyonel clapped him on the shoulder. “Come on; it might actually work. I’ll try it for my next open-
ing and you two will be there to see it.”
That brought Zane out from his hands. “Really?” he asked incredulously, sitting up in his chair.
Lyonel Reeds shrugged, a slight smile on his lips. We continued our late dinner, conversation bounc-
ing between art, comic books, and food. Finally, the time came for us to part ways. As we exchanged contact
information, Lyonel spoke up.
“I know my methods sound crazy and unconventional, but in a way, it’s therapeutic. It helps me to
just let go and feel my emotions,” he said, shoving his hands in his trouser pockets. “Now I’m not saying that
getting rip-roaring drunk is a cure all for creative blocks; it’s just something that helps me personally. Some-
times you just need to stop thinking so much and that was my issue. I was so caught up in achieving fame and
fortune that I forgot how to truly express myself through my work. I’m not sure if any of this makes sense,
but I hope it does.”
“While I kinda have some reservations about your methods, I’m glad that they help you in the way
they do,” Zane said, fiddling with his mustache. “Besides, it’s very Ernest Hemingway.”
“Thanks, Zane. That means a lot,” Lyonel said with a small laugh. “I’ll give you guys a ring to let
you know when my next opening is?”
“Yes, sir. We look forward to it,” I said with a smile. I’m not sure if I was grinning or grimacing at
the thought of going to another art gallery.
“Awesome! It was really great meeting you guys,” Lyonel said, shaking hands with me and then
“It was an absolute honor, sir,” Zane replied excitedly.
And with a final wave, Lyonel Reeds left us.
When Zane and I got back to his apartment, we were greeted by our Lord and Savior, air condition-
ing. The cool air was a blessing, compared to the hot, muggy air outside.
Once inside, Zane kicked off his Timberlands and headed straight for the bathroom and closed the
door. Shrugging, I hastily took off my heels. At this point, my feet felt like Hans Christian Anderson’s Little
Mermaid. I grabbed a couple of glasses and a bottle of red from the yellow kitchenette and placed them on
the glass coffee table.
Zane was still in the bathroom. Concerned, I tiptoed to the door and lightly knocked. “You okay? Is
the food not sitting well?” I asked, worry lining my voice.
After several minutes, Zane finally opened the door. I stumbled back in shock. Zane had finally
shaved his stupid handlebar mustache. When I asked why he decided to get rid of it, his response was simple,
and yet incredibly profound.
“Hipsters are pretentious assholes,” he said, nonchalantly.
I chuckled and walked over to Zane’s record player. Flipping through his many records, something
began to stir in me. Finally, my eyes landed on an album containing Bizet’s greatest works. I placed the deli-
cate disc onto the platter while that ineffable feeling persisted. As the beginning notes of Carmen started to
play, I stood there motionless, as if I were in a trance. Staring at the record spinning round and round, the
notes began to materialize in the air in front of me. Electricity seemed to course through my veins as my fin-
gers started to mimic the notes I knew so well. I had finally let go and felt the rhythm, the notes, the crescen-
do. I felt the beautiful music.
Second Place Prose
I’ll remember him like this:
Strolling slowly through the yard as he tends to the small farm, his tattered
camo jacket and steaming Circle K coffee warming his calloused hands.
He rises with his roosters to catch the first morning brew and his wife,
Dolores, before her shift at the deli begins.
I’ll remember him like this:
Hand armed with a machete as he hacks rhythmically and repeatedly
on the length of his home-grown sugar cane. We suck on the stem,
because he assured us, the sweetness could cure any illness or broken heart.
I’ll remember him like this:
With a wit firing quicker than any Texas gunslinger, he jokes about Dolores’s
graying hair but strokes it with his hands and admires how it falls down
and curves around her shoulder. It reminds him of the waterfalls
back in his homeland.
I’ll remember him like this:
He takes the slingshot from my, tiny hands and shows me how to properly shoot.
He walks across the yard, places two empty hominy cans on the stump of the old oak tree
and tells me to pick up rocks that are no bigger than my palm. I pick up ten.
I’ll remember him like this:
He sits in the open shed across the cans, picking at a pomegranate as nine rocks hit the ground.
He continues to suck loudly on the seeds, until he hears a stone strike tin. He smiles, his wrinkled face tight-
ens in surprise, and he gives me two red stained thumbs up.
Second Place Poetry
Lost (in) Time
The Allensdale Mall had a lot to offer, but I only had eyes for the pretzels. Our trip to the late ‘90s
wasn’t supposed to be a long one. We were only supposed to have a quick look around to familiarize our-
selves with potential places to bring the kids later in the week, but then we were walking through the food
court to leave the mall, and I happened to look to my right. They’d caught my eye in between the bright neon
shapes that covered most of the jackets worn by the remnants of the crowd in the food court. The pretzels
looked good, like the big soft kind you get at amusement parks and Renaissance fairs that are always more
about the experience than the taste. They smelled great too, like butter and fresh bread, and as we walked past
the kiosk my stomach felt the need to remind me that I’d had to skip lunch. I surreptitiously glanced at the
prices and the line—only a few bored looking people—trying to figure out if I could buy one before my part-
ner noticed. Adaine was a good partner, but she’d always been a bit tetchy when it came to deviating from a
schedule, and the odds that she’d think getting a pretzel would be an “acceptable deviation” were low. I knew
this, of course. I knew her, but that wouldn’t stop me.
Apparently, I wasn’t as surreptitious as I thought.
I’d barely taken a single step towards the pretzel man and his kiosk of delight when I was nearly
yanked off my feet by a hand on my jacket collar. “We’re on a schedule, Marial. We don’t have time for
whatever you got distracted with this time.” Adaine said as she pulled me out of the thinning crowd of parents
leading kids. I was anticipating what she’d call an argument and I’d call a “spirited debate”. She followed my
gaze back to the kiosk and groaned. “Absolutely not, you’re not making us late over some mall pretzel.”
Sighing, I pulled away and straightened my jacket, careful not to stumble back into the oncoming
foot traffic. “We’re not gonna be late because I took five minutes to buy a pretzel. We have all the time in the
world,” I said, holding up the clicker. “Literally. I’m holding all the time in the world in my hand.”
She didn’t look convinced, her expression hovering somewhere between disgruntled and skeptical.
Undeterred, I tried again. "Look, you know how it is, Addy. What with tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomor-
row, always creeping in, it just goes on and on sometimes, so you gotta live in the moment. Also, we skipped
lunch, so I’m hungry, you’re probably hungry, and we have a clicker. We can’t be late with a clicker."
Adaine sighed heavily in frustration, dropping her head into her hand before saying, “We’ve been
over this, it’s called a Timepiece, and don’t call me Addy. You’re not supposed to use the Timepiece for any-
thing other than the job anyway, and…” Her voice trailed off as her eyes flicked between me and the pretzel
kiosk like she was losing a fight against her instincts. If I looked at her face from just the right angle, I’d al-
most say she looked wistful, and was that a flicker of anxiety? From Her Stoicness herself? This was almost
more interesting than Adaine just agreeing with me about getting a pretzel.
The flicker was just a flicker, however, and with a shake of her head that could almost be called
forceful, the mask was back and she picked up that same tune she always sung where she left off. “We could
be late,” she reiterated, “Late, or—”
“Or worse, expelled?”
Adaine’s eyebrows jumped up to meet her hairline as she looked at me like I’d suggested we’d be
demoted to circus clowns. “What? No. We work for—we’re not even in school, Marial. What do we have to
be expelled from?”
I gave up trying to explain what Harry Potter was and why that joke was incredibly funny, actually,
before I even started.
She gave a last look back at the pretzel kiosk, one I knew her well enough to know she’d never ad-
mit was a look of longing, before shaking it off her face and turning to walk away. “You can’t just make
things go your way over a mall pretzel.” Squaring any remaining hesitancy out of her shoulders before walk-
ing off, Adaine called back to me, “If you really want a pretzel, we have them at home. Just get one there.”
Hurrying to catch up with her, I crashed into a large plant by the railing, recovered quickly, and
caught Adaine’s shoulder to keep her from getting too far ahead. “Look, Addy,” I said. She glared when I
used her unapproved nickname. I pretended not to notice and kept going. “It’ll only take five minutes, tops.
There’s no way we’re gonna miss a check in over five minutes. It’ll be fine, and as a bonus we’ll have pret-
zels. It’s a win-win situation here.”
There was that hesitation again, like for a second Adaine would maybe be willing to forget all her
rules and schedules and order, before her expression shut down. “You know they can tell when you jump,
right? They can tell if you jumped late, and I’m not gonna be the one to stand in front of our manager and say
‘yes sir, we misused the biggest technological advancement of the century because the terrible ‘90s mall had
really good pretzels’.” She grabbed my arm and started pulling me along. “I’m not having this conversation
anymore. We’re leaving. Give me the Timepiece.”
I sighed dejectedly, and stuck my hand into my pocket. A bolt of panic hit me like a train, and I
reached my hand in harder, checking and rechecking the small space.
No no no no.
I stopped dead in my tracks, frantically searching the pockets on the right side of my jacket. I always
put the clicker in the right hand pocket. If it wasn’t there then where could it be? I ran back the way we came
and started tearing through the wide leaves of the potted fern I’d tripped into. All I found was fake leaves,
fake dirt, a mounting sense of dread, and Adaine’s confused shouts in the background. I stood up from the
plant in a daze just as she walked over. I swallowed, kept my eyes straight ahead, and before she could say
anything, I ripped off the bandaid and blurted out, “I think I dropped the clicker.”
Adaine was so shocked she didn’t even bother to correct me. “You think you what!? Where?”
Looking over the railing in defeat instead of meeting her gaze, I said, “Well it’s not in my pocket, and
it’s not in the plant, and it’s not on the ground, so there’s really only one other option.”
She came over to where I was looking over the railing, and I watched her eyes grow wide as she
looked down on the tops of heads parting around the bright, primary colors of the ball pit below.
The walk to the elevator was tense and silent. The elevator ride itself was even worse. My eyes kept
drifting to Adaine, trying to gauge where she was at vis-a-vis potentially killing me over this, and if I hadn’t
known her as well as I did, I would’ve found her completely unreadable. I knew what to look for, however,
and the slight wrinkle in her forehead combined with the minute clench of her jaw weren’t doing me any fa-
vors. We stepped off the elevator, dodging between distracted children rushing to catch up with impatient par-
ents and inseparable clumps of girls linked at the arms, and approached the ball pit, standing by the edge for a
moment as we each psyched ourselves up to actually get in the pit. Turning to Adaine, I weakly said, “Could
be worse, it would be full of children.”
Her glare told me it was too early for reconciliation.
The waves of brightly colored plastic balls made a light clacking sound as I waded through the knee-
deep rectangular pit. It was tricky to navigate, mostly because the solid ground underneath it all was mysteri-
ously sticky. I chose to believe the sticky was all spilled soda. I also chose not to think about how infrequently
the ball pit was cleaned, if there was that much spilled soda on the ground. It was a delicate balance.
There was a sudden loud smack and I turned just in time to see the end of Adaine’s dark ponytail slip
beneath the top layer of balls. I rushed to help her, only to have my hand slapped away as her head resurfaced.
She glared at me, the anger in her eyes and shoulders so palpable I had to take a step back. Adaine Merri-
weather had always been intense, but now she was terrifying.
I backed up until I stood at a safe distance—outside of punching range—before gathering my courage
to try and smooth the situation over. “Again, I’m sorry I dropped the clicker.”
“I’m not speaking to you,” she said through gritted teeth and narrowed eyes. “Just shut up so we can
find it and go home.”
I nodded quickly, holding my hands up in mock surrender. I hoped it was mock surrender, at least.
We worked silently, surrounded by the clamor of conversation from the people streaming in criss-crossing
paths through the mall around us, the tinny new Backstreet Boys song on the speaker system, and the in-
creasingly frantic clacking as Adaine and I unsuccessfully tore through the mound of colorful plastic with
mounting frustration. We got a few strange looks, mostly from suburban moms in patterned sweaters and
light-washed jeans pulling children of all ages towards the exits, but I couldn’t completely blame them for
wondering what two grown women with no children in sight were doing in a children’s ball pit. A passing
group of teens in flannel and loose jeans did a double take when they saw us, so I nodded back in greeting.
They shrugged and left, fundamentally the same here as teens were at home.
As I struggled to wade through the cheap plastic balls, trying to feel around the bottom of the pit, I
wondered how long I should wait before trying to talk to Adaine again. Sure, she had just told me to shut up,
but she probably didn’t mean that, right? I looked over to where she was crouched by the low, padded grey-
blue walls surrounding the edges of the square pit. Her usually neutral face was creased in furious concentra-
tion and her shoulders were taut with barely contained rage beneath her dark green jacket. On second
thought, she probably had meant it when she told me to shut up, but I’d never let that stop me before, and I
wasn’t about to start now.
I looked down, shifted some of the multicolored balls, and then looked back up at Adaine. She
looked back, radiating wave after wave of anger and anxiety. I looked back down at the balls.
I started trying to unperceptively back away and hesitantly said, “Look on the bright side. We could
probably get like, a billion cheap Tamagotchis and sell them as collector’s items when we get home.”
She sighed in frustration. “I don’t think you’re really grasping the severity of the situation.”
I shrugged, sitting down on the low walls around the pit. “I’m just saying, it’s not all bad. We could
make this work for us, probably.”
“Marial!” Adaine shrieked, suddenly jumping up from where she was crouching, spraying brightly
colored plastic balls everywhere. I waved awkwardly at the confused families and pedestrians who had been
distracted from their shopping by Adaine’s manic outburst. Adaine, however, didn’t seem to notice the sud-
den attention, and kept right on screaming. I was just glad the internet was still too new for video platforms,
and that cameras were still too big to be casually carried around.
“We are stuck in a ball pit! And it’s your fault! This whole situation—the lost Timepiece, the ball
pit, all of it—is entirely your fault!”
“Y’know, I think ‘entirely my fault’ might be a bit harsh.”
“Why?! Why would you think that?! Did someone else drop our only way home into this, this
sticky, plastic hell-pit?!”
“Well, when you put it like that.”
“There’s no other way to put it! That’s exactly what happened! And now we’re stuck in this, this—”
Instead of finding whatever word she was searching for, Adaine settled for a wordless scream of rage and
frustration, and trying to kick the balls surrounding her so hard she almost fell over.
The screaming seemed to help let out some of her anger, and Adaine sank into the balls in defeat.
“What’s the use? We’re never gonna find the Timepiece. We’re going to fail—I can’t, I can’t fail, we’ll be
stuck here forever, and you’re going to start using words like ‘home skillet’ and ‘booyah’, and I’m going to
have to start wearing plaid, and, and…”
She trailed off, looking more scared and hopeless than I’d ever seen her, which was almost ironic,
given all the disgruntled parents and uncooperative coworkers I’d seen her put the “fear of Adaine” into.
Adaine always seemed so impenetrable, so irritably unflappable, that seeing her on the brink of really giving
up was like a wake up call, a neon sign that cut through my upbeat denial to proclaim how trapped we were.
Mostly it just made me feel bad about the whole mess, which was admittedly my fault. I shoved my hands
into my pockets and leaned back against the stone walls of the building, shifting into the headspace for a
good wallow before the real panic over being stuck in time hit, when my left hand brushed soft plastic. I
froze for a second, before jolting upright so fast I almost fell off the edge of the ball pit.
“You’re never gonna believe this, but I think I found the clicker.”
Adaine looked up. “What? You think—what?”
“Yeah, it was in my other pocket.”
Adaine’s face drifted from pure relief to confusion before jumping head first into rage. “You had it
the whole time? And you never thought to check your other pocket? The whole time?!”
“Okay, I know what you’re thinking, but look on the—”
“If you say ‘look on the bright side,’ I swear I will shoot you. I will shoot you and I won’t feel bad
about it.” Still glaring, Adaine stood up and climbed out of the pit, trying desperately to maintain as much
dignity as a grown woman can when climbing out of a ball pit for children. It wasn’t much, but I wasn’t about
to say anything.
The first thing Adaine did after we finally walked away from the ball pit was wash her hands to “get
rid of the little kid germs”. Then she took the clicker from me. I really couldn’t blame her for that. We
walked out and around the back of the mall in silence, but I could tell it was less tense than the silence in the
elevator, if only marginally. That was okay, though, I could work with marginally.
I couldn’t help but watch the faces in the crowd we joined after leaving the elevator. It was a weird
feeling, walking among all these people I was physically older and chronologically younger than. Watching
the people going about their ordinary lives around me—the little girl with the long blonde pigtails walking
with her mother to my left, the ginger twenty something with three spikes in each ear staring off into space in
front of me—all without any idea what was coming. To them, time travel was for movies and sci-fi, not your
nine to five. It always made me wonder idly what it would be like to have been born in another time. More
than that, it made me curious what happened to these people, what they did with their lives, what their stories
were. It was a melancholy sort of curiosity, fine for every once in a while but not so intriguing that I wouldn’t
be glad when we finally went home.
We walked through the cool night air until we reached a secluded clump of thin trees half bent over
at the edge of the parking lot. They were on the short side as far as trees go, but between the setting sun and
the large bushes in and around the trees there was enough cover that it was unlikely anyone would see what
we were doing. When we reached the most secluded part of the clump, Adaine held up her hand, signalling
me to wait as cars rushed past on the road next to us. The traffic died down, and she went to grab my hand,
but flinched back before settling on my upper arm instead. I raised an eyebrow at that and opened my mouth
to say what I assume could only be something dumb and impulsive, but before I could get the words out there
was a click and a bright flash of white-blue light. It felt like the ground dropped out from under me, a feeling
of weightlessness that lasted three, four, five seconds before solid ground returned.
The trees and twilight had disappeared, replaced by the bright lights and pale blue walls of the Arri-
val Room. Next to me, Adaine let out a breath and loosened her grip as we joined the others stepping off the
platform, the closest she ever got to visibly relaxing. She’d told me once, late at night and high off lack of
sleep, that she was always glad at the end of these trips when she got to go home, back to where she wasn’t
surrounded by the walking dead. Seeing her like this every time we jumped back always made me remember
just how unprepared she’d been for the full reality of what we did. This was of course all secondary to Adaine
trying to hold my hand before we jumped from 1996, which was both more interesting and easier to deal
with. Leaning over slightly so I could speak soft enough to avoid being overheard without having to worry
about her not hearing me, I said, “Y’know, I’d hold your hand if you held mine first,” winking.
Her face flushed bright red and she looked past me like a shocked and jumpy deer stumbling into the
headlights. I almost thought she was going to smile, if nervously, but her face quickly shifted into a scowl,
shaking her head as she left me to rush to catch up with her. We made our way through the noise of the crowd
of classes returning from trips and pairs of partners returning from various eras—some Elizabethan ruffs
here, some Tang Dynasty hanfus there, a cloche hat just visible on the far edge of the room—in almost com-
fortable silence, pushing through the swinging glass door that separated the platform itself from the waiting
room and the hallway beyond. The crowd we’d been moving with funneled through the hallway then dis-
persed, each group headed off for their own destination.
We wound our way through the paneled, grey halls that never failed to remind me of those old pic-
tures of twenty-first century airports, with the weird tunnels to get to the plane itself. After a few turns, I
pulled open the heavy locker-room door. Adaine and I stepped into the tiled room and started changing out of
our borrowed ‘90s gear for the more anachronistic clothes we’d left behind. I kept glancing quickly at
Adaine, trying to gauge what she was thinking. I only caught her eye once, but before she hurriedly looked
away, I could swear I saw a hint of nerves hidden in her hazel eyes, like she didn’t know what to say. I could
understand that. Standing next to her in the bright lights, I also wasn’t sure what to say. I felt bad about the
whole disaster, of course, but knowing I felt that way and putting it into words were two totally different
things, and one was significantly harder than the other.
I kept turning that over and over in my head down the long hall to the check in, barely paying atten-
tion to the metal doors as they silently slid open. Vaguely, I was aware of crossing the thin office carpet to the
row of locked plexiglass boxes the clickers (“timepieces,” I could hear Adaine correct in my head) belonged
in. I was idly listening to the light clack of the keypad as Adaine typed in the passcode, mentally running over
what to say to Adaine when I remembered that I had a bigger problem. For legal reasons, or so I was told,
things always got tricky when school kids were involved, and that only increased when you took them on
field trips to the past. Each time you got back from the past you had to fill out a report detailing everything
that happened while you were there. Everything, including that time I almost lost the one thing we were spe-
cifically, directly told not to lose.
I was mostly sure that my boss didn’t exactly like me, mostly for my accidental tendency to play fast
and loose with the guidelines of good time travel—don’t call attention to yourself, don’t reference the fu-
ture—but I’d always managed to stop short of doing something with corporate consequences. Almost losing a
clicker, though, would have major consequences. Potentially losing my job consequences. I’d started pacing
in a small circle as my thoughts spiralled from bad but realistic to worst case scenario when Adaine pushed
the slim tablet and stylus into my hands. I frantically skimmed through the report. There was no mention of
almost losing the clicker.
She covered for me.
Adaine Merriweather, who I was pretty sure was the only person on the planet to have not only read
but memorized the company handbook, broke a rule to cover for me.
I stared at the screen, reading the words over and over. I looked at Adaine, confused, then back at the
screen, then back at Adaine. Carefully, hesitantly, she took my hand, gave it a squeeze, and then walked
away, leaving only the memory of light pressure and the hint of a smile. I looked down at the report one last
time as I absentmindedly signed the form, and couldn’t keep from smiling and laughing to myself. For some-
one as caught up in rules and regulation as Adaine was, she kept finding ways to surprise me. If I was being
honest, that was probably why we were still partners. I clicked send, before putting the tablet back in its slot
and walking away, humming quietly. I walked quickly through the lobby and the revolving door to where I’d
parked my hoverbike. Keying in the starting code, I pulled out of the small parking area. As I rode away
down the empty and largely gratuitous streets, I couldn’t help but smile again. I wasn’t getting fired, and
things with Adaine were looking up. We were partners, after all, even if I hadn’t gotten a pretzel.
A crisp breeze turns my cheeks to glowing poppies.
The sky is a big blue bowl fitted over the earth.
I crush a leaf, dried and decayed,
reveling in the sound of autumn.
The flannel blanket beneath me, an ordered symphony
of color. My mother’s voice lifting words like magic,
transforming them into three dimensional, tangible things.
In my mind I see mole, rat, toad, badger
leaping joyfully off the page and coming to life.
I live through them, their traipse through the Wild Wood,
their glittering banquet at Toad Hall.
I am here, yet not here, present, yet away,
floating off on the fluffy cotton cloud,
no longer words I hear,
but a scene in flashes of color,
a kaleidoscope in the eye.
A book becomes a world.
A necessity becomes a pleasure.
The afternoon sun, a ball of melting butter,
bakes us four like apple dumplings,
my mother, my brothers, and me,
warming our bones against October’s icy breath.
I didn’t yet know – my mind unformed, my heart indifferent –
what the dusty, withered, yellowing pages of that book
would become to me. How it would shape
a young mind into an old soul,
a wobbly seedling into a sturdy birch
that would not bow so easily to the
wild winds of technological change.
The morning air was sharp against the walls of Marcus’ lungs. It was mid-October, and the wind
was just beginning to learn how to bare its teeth and sink its bite. It tore through the worn fabric of his faded
East Side Evergreens hoodie, gnawing through his flesh and muscle, until it could gain access to his fragile
bones and rattle him to his core. He watched his breath turn into tightly-woven coils, curling in the wind be-
“Do you think it’ll begin to snow soon?” he asked. “Y’know, like back before , with the blizzard and
shit.” Despite knowing the small talk was pointless, Marcus tried anyway, pushing his hand into his pocket
so he could find his house keys and tangle his fingers up in the rings. Somehow, Sunny always seemed to
know when something was on his mind. Well, not somehow—they’d been attached at the hip around two
decades now and formally together for nearly seven. There was no doubt in his mind as to why Sunny could
read him like a book. The real question was why he was still always scrambling to get even a hint of what
Sunny was thinking most days.
Sunny was ahead of him by a few feet, ice snapping underneath his lace-up boots as he walked along
the uneven sidewalk, but he didn’t answer. He just kept his pace, shoulders shuddering. Marcus knew Sunny
never enjoyed the cold like he did, but even then, he was always someone for conversation. Especially one
that gave him the opportunity to complain about the shitty weather here and how he wished they’d move to
“Like it had back in 2009, yeah? When they closed down everything and—”
“I know you don’t want to talk about the weather, Marcus,” Sunny said. He stopped in the middle of
the sidewalk, looking down at the weeds that poked through the cracks. They were covered in a thin layer of
frost and Sunny kicked it off, before digging at it with the toe of his boot. “So can we talk about it already?”
Marcus squeezed his fingers tightly around his keys and swallowed. The air was so brisk before, but
now it felt thick, like wet concrete that filled up his lungs, making it hard to breathe. He watched as Sunny
took a hissing breath through his teeth and dug his fingers deeper into the sleeves of his burgundy parka, rub-
bing up and down his arms vigorously. The fur-lined hood pushed dark, shoulder-length hair into his eyes,
hair that curled around and framed his face. It was tangled and untamed but in a way that seemed almost in-
tentional. Almost, because Marcus knew Sunny didn’t actually care.
“Well, I was—I just wanted to tell you.” Marcus squeezed until it hurt, feeling his keys dig into his
palm. The sharp feeling kept him in the moment for a little longer, reminding him of how cold his fingers
were and the way his chapped lips burned when he breathed out of his nose.
“I thought I should tell you I’m leaving—well, leaving Newark.”
“What do you mean leaving?” Sunny’s voice quivered back and forth as he spoke, but he didn’t look
at Marcus. His eyes glazed over with a dullness and his tone levelled. He was always so quiet, and the silence
made Marcus’ ears ring. He just wished Sunny would say what he was thinking. Even anger would be better
than… well, this. Nothing.
“I’m moving to Manhattan, Sunny,” Marcus said, looking at Sunny for a long moment. It was proba-
bly better if he stopped talking, he was sure. The silence ringing in his ears was deafening, and the stale air
around him was acrid with tension, but he still hesitated.
Eventually, Marcus cleared his throat.
“Hey, it’s not so far, right? And I’ll be able to accept that internship at the firm. With a work-study I
could take you where you want to go out. We could go on dates to those coffee shops by the school and—
and…” Marcus said, reaching out for Sunny’s shoulder. If he could make him smile, that would be enough.
They would be okay. The earth wouldn't shake a crumble underneath his feet, and he wouldn’t fall down into
a chasm of downward spirals. He would be okay, if he could just get this right.
But Sunny pulled away from his grasp, shrugging his shoulder out of Marcus’ reach and started
walking again. “Have you ever considered that maybe I like the time we spend together here more, Marc?”
he asked, but Marcus didn’t have an answer. There wasn’t a good answer to something like this, not when the
problem wasn’t black or white.
They slowed down as they approached the convenience store, packed in between crowded apartment
buildings and other small, failing businesses that hadn’t been able to stand up to the cold. There was a small
chain link fence off to the left side of the building, blocking off the back door and some garbage can. Multi-
ple shoe laces hung from the wire, some were old and frayed. Others were almost brand new. All had a story.
Viktor would always chase off the middle schoolers that would spend their afternoons tying new knots, but
he never dared to take them down. He would be shot dead before he admitted he liked those kids.
The “O” in the obnoxiously large sign atop the building spelling “VIKTOR’S” had a bird’s nest
tucked away inside it and Marcus stopped. He watched as the raven picked away some lint it had found
somewhere, probably from the sleepy laundromat next door. One man’s trash, he supposed.
“Marc, you coming or what?” Sunny had his foot jammed in front of the glass door, the neon “open”
sign casting purple stripes across the side of his face through iron bars. The younger man’s hoodie was still
pulled over his head, and despite the frown on his lips, for just a brief moment, Marcus felt like everything
was like it had always been. Like they were okay again.
Sunny reached up to pull his hoodie back and pushed his hair out of his face, but it came back stub-
bornly, making his eyelashes flutter as it curled into his eyes. “Marcus,” he said again, jerking his head to the
side to motion Marcus in as he pushed the door open wider.
“My bad,” Marcus said and turned his body as he stepped past stiffly, careful not to touch him. He
decided not to look at Sunny.
The warmth of the building rushed over Marcus, making the hairs on his neck stand on end, bristling
to the low buzz of fluorescent lights and the familiar scent of homemade floor wash. The shop was just stir-
ring to life this early in the morning, freezers lighting up with energy drinks and watered down beer, cold air
hissing through their hardened rubber seals. Cigarette hard-packs were locked behind scratched plexiglass
displays, alongside the lottery tickets that whispered escape to hopeful regulars.
Everyone was trying to get away from a place like this: rundown shops with teenagers dealing meth
in adjacent alleyways, parents sitting on the curbside smoking as they watched their kids play in crumbling
streets. Despite all of it, Marcus finally knew what Sunny was thinking.
Sunny wanted him to stay.
Of course he did.This was their home after all, but that didn’t mean they needed to pretend things
were ever necessarily good here. It was never good, and Marcus knew they both understood that, even if Sun-
ny didn’t want to admit it out loud. Sure, his boyfriend was an emotional, optimistic, romanticizing sap, but
he definitely wasn’t blind or an oblivious bystander. He of all people should know the day was coming when
Marcus was going to leave and even more importantly, the day he would have to decide if he was going to
“I know you love East Side, Sunny… I just… I can’t stay here forever, and you know that,” Marcus
said as he approached the front counter, picking at a corner of rubber molding that was peeling away from the
“Juro por Dios, Marc, I’ll strangle you if you break my shit in this store. Again.” Viktor walked be-
hind the counter, slapping a damp rag down on the surface and narrowed his eyes at Marcus, before he began
swiping over the glass in circular motions. Marcus nodded and stepped back, partially because he wasn’t in
the mood to get lectured, and partially because the sharp odor of lemon and white vinegar made his eyes
sting. Viktor didn’t seem to mind the smell himself, though he did occasionally complain about how it made
his hands dry.
Viktor didn’t bother to comment on what was being discussed. He knew better, but Marcus knew he
listened, as always, continuing his daily routine. He arrived at the shop every morning, before the sun rose to
clean up, in a little Carolla that creaked when he pressed the brakes and was lacking a passenger door handle.
His black hair was turning grey at the sideburns from years of stress and cigarettes in empty alleyways be-
tween the daily rush, with bags under his eyes and sagging shoulders from late nights spent sleepless in turn
for staggering bills and lengthy account statements. Afterall, even the wealthy people in poor neighborhoods
were still poor.
“I know you don’t want things to change,” Marcus said, looking over at his boyfriend, who was
grabbing a Snickers candybar from one of the front racks. “It’s hard.”
Sunny furrowed his eyebrows, as if he was fighting with something that he kept to himself, and then
“You know, it’s not even that. Would you be so surprised if I told you that I like knowing that you’re
okay because I’m with you or at least Mami or Viktor are in case something happens?” he asked, reaching for
the pack of Marlboros Viktor slid across the counter to him without a word. Viktor always knew when Sunny
needed a pack, and although Marcus hated the idea of Sunny smoking again, he was grateful regardless.
“What would I do if, if you were to—”
Marcus stopped and the muscles in his jaw grew tight, and the tips of his fingers felt like static elec-
tricity as blood went to his legs. “Don’t even go there, Sunny,” he said, looking up at him. He couldn’t ignore
the way the corner of his boyfriend’s mouth quivered, but he continued regardless. “This isn’t sophomore
year of high school when we were kids. I’m not tweaking the fuck out during study hall or jumping the fence
so I can go get high in Santi’s basement.”
“I’m not saying that, Marc. You know that. I just don’t want to risk—”
“Risk what? I have a plan for my life now, and I can’t help anyone else in this shithole when I’m one
of the washed up bastards in it. You have to move on already. You can’t just sit here waiting for something to
“You don’t know shit about moving on, Marcus!” Sunny said, raising his voice as he took a step for-
ward. His shoulders shook as he spoke, but the fire in his eyes was white hot. "When’s the last time you even
acknowledge that you have a goddamn problem? Or talked to someone? When’s the last time you haven’t
relapsed when you hit a wall and when have you ever fucking gone to your dad’s grave to work through any-
thing he left behind?!”
“What the fuck do you even mean by that, Sunny?” Marcus could feel himself seething, and he was
about to boil over when he was smacked in the back of his head, cursing as he looked to see his uncle walk-
ing around the counter. Viktor reached out to Marcus’ chest and pushed him back, though his force was obvi-
“¡Vete a la chingada! Both of you!” Viktor snapped, throwing the newspaper he had in his hand
down on the counter. “What the hell has gotten into you two? Just ‘cause you’re grown doesn’t mean you
aren't still my goddamn kids!”
Marcus winced, looking at the floor as he reached up to rub the back of his head, focusing on the
way their shoes looked against the checkered tile, clean, but it would no longer hold luster when mopped. He
struggled to find words as his voice catched in his throat. “I… I’m sorry, Viktor.”
When Marcus looked back up, he immediately could see that Sunny was on the brink of tears. The
other man’s cheeks were red with heat and his hands trembled as he pressed his fingers into the sleeves of his
jacket. He felt his stomach drop and sweat prickled suddenly over the surface of his skin. He put Sunny in
this situation, and he knew that well. He chose to push Sunny to his limits despite knowing it would never
end well. Now his boyfriend was on the cusp of a panic attack because of his stupid, hotheaded decision, and
there was nothing he could do to take back his words.
“Hey, Sebastian, I’m sorry for yelling. I, uh… I know it’s…” Viktor didn’t finish his apology, how-
ever, because Sunny was already pushing his way past Marcus as he beelined for the exit.
“It’s okay. I’m sorry. I- I should go,” Sunny said. His voice was drowned out by the bell that hung
above him, rattling to life when the door swung open before letting out its shrill welcome. He turned the cor-
ner, and he was gone before either of them could even let out a breath.
Marcus felt his feet grow roots into the floor, steadfast. It was better to give him his space, let him
calm down somewhere by himself. What would he even say if he talked to Sunny, anyway? Apologize for
being an awful boyfriend? An awful friend? Instead, he reached out and picked up the Snickers bar that laid
on the counter, unopened.
“He left the Snickers, huh.” It was hardly a question, just something to fill the silence that was suffo-
cating the convenience store of air. And also to point out something else:
There were no Marlboros to be found.
Marcus sighed, walking over and tossing the candy bar back on it’s rack. “Yeah, guess he did.”
The smell of fabada asturiana soup was almost assaulting, filling the kitchen and adjacent dining
room with its strong aroma of onions and beef broth. A plastic clock that hung on the wall ticked away the
seconds, and Marcus bounced his leg up and down in rhythm with its monotone song. It was almost half past
seven, but he didn’t need to look at the clock to know that; the street lights were turning on, dimly illuminat-
ing the neighborhood that lived just outside the windows of the apartment.
“Do you think he’s alright?” Benjamin asked, sitting down in one of the four chairs that sat around
the table, across from Marcus. The extras were pushed against the wall on the far side of the room, out of the
way. “Sunny doesn’t usually miss dinner is all.”
Mami let out a soft huff of air as she entered from the kitchen, setting a large pot atop a wooden triv-
et. “Of course he’s all right, Benji. Don’t worry Marcus more than he already is on his own,” she said and
pointed at the younger boy’s plate. “Now be quiet, you can’t eat anything if you’re busy yapping.”
“I wasn’t trying to worry him, Mami, I was just—”
“You were just eating, mijo. Now hush.”
“Vale,” Benjamin said, his tone reluctant as he sat up on his knees, reaching over to ladle himself a
serving of what Mami had made into his bowl, avoiding the red peppers.
It was a bean soup, with what looked to be sausage and fresh cilantro still simmering at the top from
the heat. The smell of its broth reminded him of when he would visit his grandparents during his winter
breaks as a teenager. They were always under the impression it was freezing when it wasn’t even cold enough
to snow in Spain on most days, and he could only imagine what would happen if they were to visit New Jer-
sey when it was anytime other than summer.
Marcus could understand why Sunny always rambled on about Brazil. There was a breath to the air
of where you’re from that made it feel like it was the one place you were always meant to be. Even if East
Side was where he considered home, there was something that always called him back to the rocky hillsides
of las Hurdes de Ladrillar, where the goats woke him up at sunrise and his neighbors waved over to him from
Marcus sighed. Those days felt so far away. There was never time anymore.
“I haven’t seen him since this morning at Viktor’s. I… I messed up,” he said, pushing his hands into
his hair before groaning and resting his forehead on the table. It felt cool to the touch and helped fight the
headache he could sense coming on. “I feel like shit, and now I don’t even know where he is to even say any-
thing to fix it.”
Marcus could hear Mami’s little steps as she walked around the table, until she was right beside him,
pulling his fingers away from his head and replacing them with her own. She worked out the tangles in his
hair, humming softly. “Mi cielito,” she soothed, “Sunny he’s... ello es muy aparente. He’s a good boy, and he
loves you dearly. You two have had arguments before, mijo. He’s certainly hurt more than anything else, not
Marcus sighed and sat up, looking at his mother and her sure eyes. He snorted when he saw her
smile, shaking his head. “He’s talked to you, hasn’t he?”
“Of course he has, Marcus. Who else would he go to when he can’t go to you?”
“Vale, vale,” he said, getting up from the table and wrapping his arm around her narrow shoulders to
hug her loosely. “You don’t need to rub it in.”
“Yes I do, Marc.”
“Where’s he at then?”
“The truck last I checked.” She pulled away from Marcus and grabbed his jacket. She even tried to
help him put it on, despite being nearly a foot shorter than her son.
“Thanks, Mami. I love you,” Marcus muttered, leaning down to kiss the top of her head.
“Te amo,” she replied and squeezed his shoulders
Benjamin cleared his throat loudly and sat up in his chair. He puffed up his chest in dramatic fashion,
grinning like an idiot. “What about me? No ‘te amo’s for me, huh?”
“Shut up, kid. I love you too,” Marcus said with a snicker, ruffling his cousin’s messy hair before he
opened the back door, stepping outside.
He stood in the entryway as the screen door behind him creaked, closing with a clasp. As he walked
down the small set of stairs, the chill in the air hit him, with a bite as sharp as the morning’s air, perhaps even
more. Sunny was probably freezing.
As he walked towards the fenced up portion of the parking lot, he could see his dad’s old truck
parked where it always was. It couldn’t run, and it wasn’t worth any money, but none of them could bear to
get rid of it. So it sat there, useless, propped up on cinder blocks, and half covered with a tarp.
Sunny sat in the bed, with his back against the cab of the truck. He had a joint in his mouth and a
puffy duvet wrapped around his shoulders, with his phone in his hand as he scrolled back and forth mindless-
“What happened to the pack Viktor gave you?” Marcus asked, grabbing the tailgate and pulling him-
self up onto the bumper, before stepping over into the bed of the truck. He decided not to sit right next to
Sunny, and instead sat against one of the sides. “What you playing?”
Sunny didn’t look up from his phone, shrugging one of his shoulders. “Kinda remembered why I
switched over in the first place. Smoking is fun and all. Pot is better,” he said. “And Tomb of the Mask. I’m
on level fifteen now.”
Marcus nodded, leaning forward so he could look at the screen of Sunny’s phone. He couldn’t care
less about the game, but he did care about Sunny and his interests, so he watched anyway. “Is it fun?”
“Yeah, I’d say so,” he said, but put away his phone. “I know you don’t give a shit about the game,
Marc. It’s okay.”
“Oh no! It’s not that. It’s, uh… cool? I guess?”
“Mhm, sure. C’mere, meu amor,” Sunny said and opened up his blanket for Marcus. He had his legs
curled up to his chest underneath, and it was suddenly obvious that the younger man was shivering.
Marcus hesitated, starting to get up to crawl under the blanket, but paused halfway. Sunny snorted
and reached out for his hand. “Hey, I said come cuddle with me, Marc. You’re making me even colder! What
kind of boyfriend are you?”
As he was pulled forward, Marcus felt himself easily wrap his arms around Sunny, holding him
against his chest. He found the top of his boyfriend’s head and rested his chin on tangled curls that tickled his
“Aren’t you still upset with me?” Marcus asked.
“A little bit, but…” Sunny took a drag from his joint before exhaling away from them. He was grate-
ful, because there was nothing worse than getting pot blown right into your face. “I dunno. I think just ‘cause
I’m mad at you doesn’t give me a reason to not try to fix things. What you said hurt, but I still love you and
all that shit, y’know?”
Marcus hummed in acknowledgement, but he didn’t say anything. For once, the silence was nice. It
made him feel secure, instead of smothering and choking him. Maybe it was the fabric of the blanket against
his skin, or how warm he felt with Sunny. Whatever it was, it was the best feeling.
“And it’s not like I’m a saint or anything either. I’m… I’m really sorry for bringing up your dad,
Marc. I don’t know what I would do if you talked about my mom like that.” Sunny shifted underneath Mar-
cus’ grip, before bringing up his hand and offering Marcus his half-smoked joint. “Want?”
“Thanks,” Marcus said, leaning over Sunny’s shoulder to take a hit before resting back against the
truck again. Sunny took back the joint and relaxed against him, and the weight of his body against Marcus’
chest kept him in the moment. He held his breath until he felt like he was about to cough, then exhaled, and
the sharp shortness of breath he felt told him this wasn’t some cheap trash Sunny got anywhere. It was good.
“I’m sorry too, Sunny. I should’ve told you sooner, when I was first considering moving, not when I’ve al-
ready looked at a place and made up my mind.”
“Yeah, you really should’ve.”
Sunny snorted, turning to look at Marcus. His smile was small, and his eyes were red from the pot.
He looked happy though, probably for the first time that day.
“You’re high,” he laughed, pushing Sunny’s hair out of his eyes.
“A little,” Sunny said, “but that doesn’t change anything. I get it, amor. Talking is hard.”
“Yeah, it really is,” Marcus sighed, looking up at the sky. His shoulders shook, but he didn’t want to
move right now. They could stay out here just a little longer, shivering together in the back of his dad’s truck
He hadn’t even realized he had let his eyes close until something cold on his face made him open
then. His vision was blurry for a moment and he blinked until it cleared, watching as the light from the porch
was reflected off of the tiny white particles that were falling from the sky.
He could feel himself smile as he watched the snowflakes come down, hugging Sunny a little closer
to him and nuzzling his face in his boyfriend’s hair. He smelt of citrus soap and a little bit of cologne.
“Hey… Sunny, look up,” Marcus said.
“Guess you were right to ask about it this morning after all.” Sunny nudged him in the side with his
elbow. “Maybe you were right about those coffee shop dates too, yeah?”
He smiled. “Maybe so…”
Marcus sat on the floor in front of his bed, folding a pile of shirts and sweaters that sat alongside oth-
er separated piles of clothes. The air in his room was stale between the dust and the old hardwood floors,
reminiscing of the memories that lived in between the walls and walked down the hallways at night. Sunny
sat on the floor as well, but in front of the bookshelf that was against the wall on the other side of the room.
His suitcase sat on top of his bed, an old leather trunk that was sprawled open. It only had a sweater and a
couple pairs of jeans inside, no doubt due to their crawl of a pace when it came to packing.
Marcus watched as Jasper, his American longhair calico, found his way inside the case and flopped
into the clothes, wiggling around until he made himself comfy. He was perfectly arranged in the sunlight that
shined through the window on the wall to the left of the bed. Marcus chuckled and looked back over to Sun-
Marcus was folding another shirt when he paused, pulling out a knitted sweater that scratched at his
skin, before lifting it up and presenting it to Sunny with an exaggerated huff of air.
“Why’d you put this one in the pile?” he asked. “This sweater is gross.”
Sunny looked up from the large book he had been flipping through. He had completely stopped help-
ing pack at that point, not that it was a surprise to anyone. Honestly, Marcus had wanted the company more
Sunny squinted his eyes for a moment as he inspected the sweater, then he smiled, and then he
clutched his book to his chest as he let out a laugh that petered into a frantic giggle.
“What? I got you that for Valentine's Day. You have to take it!” he said, snickering when Marcus
“I cannot take every sentimental item you’ve ever given me, sweetheart.” Marcus shook his head,
looking at the badly stitched cat emoji once more before he tossed it aside, getting up and stretching his
shoulders above his head. The bones in his spine cracked and he let out a satisfied sigh, walking over to
where Sunny was sitting on the floor.
Sunny sighed as he went back to flipping through the book in his lap, taking his time on each page,
not looking up as he continued to speak, “You said that about the mittens I made for our six year anniversary!
You have to take something I’ve made for you, Marc.”
Marcus crouched down beside Sunny, peering over the edge of his shoulder to see it was a photo
album, another of the many things his boyfriend had made for him. This one was arguably more special than
all the other items, however, and it was well worn from the hundred of times he had opened it. Sunny had
been looking through it for the better part of an hour now.
“Why don’t I take this?” he asked, reaching down to turn the page over.
There was only one photo glued down, water-stained but still recognizable. It was from their sopho-
more year of high school, with Marcus on his knees in the middle of an ice rink, in his hockey uniform. His
hair was longer then, matted down against his forehead from where his helmet had been, which then laid on
the ice beside him. Sunny had been standing in front of him, no skates, shakily keeping his balance with the
help of Marcus’ hands. It had taken the entire team to help his boyfriend across the ice to him, but it was well
“I really like this photo,” Marcus said in a quiet voice, touching the corner of the photo, rounded
with years of wear and tear. Paper flowers and glitter framed it nicely in the center of the page, with the date
pasted below it out of scrapbooking paper that was warped from too much glue. “It was a really good game
Sunny snorted and leaned into Marcus’ side, resting his head on his shoulder. “You mean when you
asked me to prom?” he asked, nudging him in the ribcage. There was no true question, however. They both
knew exactly where it was from. “I like it too, and it was a really good game, even though we lost.”
Marcus reached forward after a moment of silence, taking the photo album into his hands to look at
the picture more closely. It was old and the colors were fading, but treasured nonetheless. He took a deep
breath and his shoulders shook, blinking a few times when his eyes stung. “I’m gonna really miss not being
here with you all the time, Sunny,” he said, almost in a whisper. He doubted it was even audible.
“Me too,” Sunny replied, motioning at Marcus to stand with him. He took the album and closed it,
the binding crackling softly as the thread holding the pages together stretched to accommodate the change.
He started towards the bed, shuffling across the floor in his socks and setting the book beside the suitcase. He
sighed, taking a moment to scratch Jasper on the head with gentle fingers, smiling softly when the cat began
to purr with the intensity of an idle motorcycle.
Marcus watched his boyfriend closely. The way his shoulders slouched a little and made him look
smaller than Marcus even though he was taller, the way his eyelashes looked in the sunlight, the way he
smiled. All of it.
He really did love him. More than anything in the entire world.
“Would you like to come with me?”
Marcus pulled his suitcase onto the bus and set it on the floor, pushing it underneath the bench seat
he was going to be sitting on. Everything else was being shipped separately to make it easier, but he kind of
wanted to be able to brush his teeth tonight, so keeping his essentials with him was a must.
As he sat down, he found it hard to look out at his neighborhood for the last time.
Mami was standing with Benjamin. Of course, she was crying, but she was beaming regardless of the
tears that streamed down her cheeks. He never imagined moving away would be so hard, or that the bus seats
would feel so much colder when he knew he wasn’t coming back later tonight.
As the bus pulled away, however, he felt relieved to not have to smile at his family through the win-
dow anymore. He sat down and reached into his pockets, searching until he felt the thick paper against his
fingers, just past his keys.
As he looked down at the tickets in his hand his chest tightened, and it became hard to swallow. Of
course, his stub was torn off, bent from being shoved into his pocket after it was given back to him.
What hurt was to look at the other ticket, unused:
[01DAYBUSPASS - SDNT - Sebastian Cortes - NWK. NJ/MAN. NY]
Half Price Books
I go to the bookstore right as the honey
Warmth fades from the sky. Between
The towering stacks I hide, poring
Through every title, seeking something
Intangible. A guide, perhaps, detailing
The human experience - something I
Can carry in my purse and consult. Maybe
I need a manual to personhood, conveniently
Broken into chapters and sections.
On some nights, when the moon awakens
From her slumber, I feel her beckon me
Into the sky. She smiles down at me,
Pulling me up, away from people
And their silly little lives. As I dangle
Midair, my spine cracks, unused to being
Opened; my pages fall free, releasing
my soliloquy of otherness for all
To sneer at. I pass aisle and aisle
of portals, little bound relics of worlds
I haven’t ever heard of from people
I never will. It haunts me, thinking about
My words ending up in the bargain bin,
Passed over for something a little easier
On the soul. I have to go. The moon’s
Almost out. I don’t buy anything.
I’ll be back next week.
First Place Poetry
Parents Can’t Choose Their Children, Either
Bilal leaned forward against the kitchen counter and watched his mother work at the stove. Across
the counter, she had her cellphone shoved up against her right ear with her shoulder, spouting Urdu’s up-and-
down-inflecting syllables and shoveling onions out of a chopper with a spatula into oil simmering in a deep
pot. She reached up with the arm that wasn’t jamming her phone against her ear to turn on the exhaust fan;
the smell of onions sizzling in oil and the spices she was about to add would diffuse throughout the whole
house otherwise. The arm then moved to the cabinets nearby, taking out and placing back spices one at a
time. There was no cookbook open on the counter, but somehow, she always knew exactly just how much to
use for each dish’s masala. The spices popped and crackled in the oil, percussion to onion’s strings. The
smell of the masala rose out of the pot like steam. He opened his mouth to suggest upping the setting on the
exhaust, but she was ahead of him, moving to do so before any sound could escape him.
As the fan roared, she spoke louder into the phone. Bilal bent down to rest his head on his arms, en-
joying the kitchen’s warmth when winter’s breath rose goosebumps on his skin. The clamor of kitchenware
and his mother’s voice soon faded into white noise.
“…Mustafa has a 3.6 GPA?”
Bilal twitched. He raised his head just in time to catch his mother’s eyes as she glanced over to him.
She didn’t look away as she congratulated whoever’s mother – “Mashallah!” – and raised a brow.
Bilal groaned and buried his head back down in his arms and tried to tune her out as hard as he
could. Still, he could hear his mother’s muffled goodbyes. An absence of flowing Urdu and the tap of metal
against the counter near his head signaled to him that his mother had finished the call. He didn’t raise his
head and waited for her to speak. The sizzling of the oil intensified into a screech in quick intervals, synchro-
nous with light scrapes of plastic against metal.
He raised his head and glared at her over his arms. She didn’t look up from the masala she was stir-
ring. She noticed, though, if the raise of her other brow was anything to go by. “What?” Bilal said. She
shrugged. “What?” he half-growled, drawing out the word. “What?”
“I didn’t say anything,” she said. “Also, speak in Urdu.”
She looked up at that, brows furrowed. “Bilal.”
Bilal straightened up from the counter. “Fine. As long as you promise not to talk about Mustafa.”
“Why not? Huh? Why not?” She reached for a bowl of chopped tomatoes and upended them into the
pot. The kitchen filled with a hissing roar as the water of the tomatoes vaporized when they hit the oil.
“What, I can’t encourage my son to be more like Asma Auntie’s son?” She quickly stirred them into the ma-
sala for couple of turns. “Who’s going to marry you, huh?” She bent down to open the cabinets under the
stovetop and rummaged through it, her voice coming back muffled. “What self-respecting girl, not to men-
tion her parents, is going to accept your Rishta?” She emerged from the cabinet with a pot lid in hand. “But
here you are, loitering around in my kitchen, watching me cook with dumb eyes more befitting of an owlet,
wanting to become a chef!” She slammed the lid on the pot.
Bilal rubbed his eyes with both palms and groaned out, “Oh my god, Mama…”
His mother carried on like he hadn’t said anything. “Did you know Mustafa is going to medical
school?” She loaded all the cookware she’d used in her arms and walked over to the sink, where she uncere-
moniously dumped them. Bilal cringed at the clatter of plastic, porcelain, and metal. “According to Asma
Auntie, Mustafa helps her with cleaning, he goes to the masjid, he even volunteers there! And he still has the
time to study hard so that he can get into medi—”
“Mama, Mustafa sells weed!”
“—cal- What?” She paused and looked up at him from a spatula she was washing.
“Yes!” Bilal slammed his palms down on the counter. “He sells weed! All those times he ‘goes to the
masjid,’ he’s just selling weed! He’s a loser!” He punctuated the last statement with an accusing jab of his
His mother pursed her lips at his outburst, but she had a pensive look on her face. She turned back to
the sink. “Really?”
She looked up from the chopper’s blades covered in suds at him again. “Wait, really?” Her eyes wid-
ened. “Do you think Asma Auntie knows?”
“Of course not!” Bilal lowered his shoulders, which had tensed up without his knowing. “And be-
sides, even she did,” – he rolled his eyes – “it’s not like she would have told you.”
His mother hummed and gave a slight nod. She turned back to rinse the blades “Yes, what you’re
saying is correct.”
Bilal sighed. “So you see, you really don’t want me to be like him, right?”
His mother opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out.
Bilal felt a wave of disbelief slowly building up. “Mama, right?”
“Well, I mean—”
The wave crashed down on his head. “Mama! Seriously?!”
She had the grace to look a bit shamefaced, her shoulders hunched up as she continued to wash.
“Okay, so I obviously don’t want you to sell weed, but all the other stuff is good!”
Bilal crumpled down against the counter, burying his head within his arms. “Oh my god. I can’t be-
Old Sleepy Bunny
Without paws and feet, She discovers
no grip nor fingers holding.
She wants to eat the thoughts that
never stop. Old Sleepy Bunny's blushing
padded tummy, filled with needs to be
squeeze-loved and pummeled,
dressed up. She is paraded to see,
how sweet for others, adorable is.
Plopped on chairs, ears pulled and chewed,
bad tiny girl confesses she stole
the silver-dollar dream tendered, stuffed
dry in round eyes that
never open. Her tail squeaks the only
sound she can make,
and Her pink skin is indifferent
to laughter. She is
only a toy.
Tie Third Place Poetry
You were absolutely convinced this woman was a witch. Or planning to murder you and let her cats
eat the remains. Possibly both.
She glided through the rows of cages so fluidly, you would have thought she was floating if not for
the click-clack of her heels on dappled tile. Several layers of patterned, wispy skirts left a trail in the air as she
followed the path you led, the bright colors flickering in your peripheral vision every time you turned a cor-
When you stopped walking, she hovered about half a foot behind you, peering over your shoulder at
the caged animal. The back of your neck prickled.
“This is the only black cat we’ve got right now, ma’am,” you said, shifting your weight uncomforta-
bly. She had to have been nearly a foot taller than you, her auburn waves of hair brushing your back as she
leaned forward. You could hear the gentle tinkling of the beads on her hoop earrings from this close. You
stepped to the side as respectfully as you could manage.
She lifted the info card clipped to the cage door with spindly, delicate fingers. “Oleander, hm? That’s
a unique name.” Her eyes slid over to the kitten inside, sleepily blinking at you both from where he was
curled up on a paisley-patterned bed.
“Yeah, he and the rest of his litter were all named after flowers ‘cause we usually have a theme for
siblings. The rest of them got adopted, though. This furball’s the only one left,” you said. You bit the inside
of your cheek, fighting the urge to cringe as you willed yourself not to babble this much every time you
“I can’t imagine why they would have left this little darling behind.” She turned towards you, and the
wide brim of her black sunhat, even indoors in this washed-out lighting, cast a deep blue shadow over her
sharp cheekbones and even sharper eyes. “May I?”
“Sure, sure.” You jolted forward to unlock the cage, and your hands nearly collided as she reached to
do the same. You jerked back, wary of her pointed nails, which were a gradient of inky black to poison green.
A nervous laugh bubbled out of your throat accompanied by an apologetic wave. She smiled, one of those
tiny, polite, bite-sized smiles, and opened the cage.
“Mew?” the kitten said, inquisitive eyes widening. You saw the woman’s face soften and felt a surge
of empathy for her despite yourself. Moments like this were why you volunteered here, moments you could
pinpoint from years of experience, moments like a soon-to-be owner falling in love with a cat for the first
She reached in and let the kitten sniff her hand before stroking down the little ridges of his spine.
You turned so that you could lean against the row of cages beside them, taking care to check that it was emp-
ty. You watched them for a few moments, arms crossed, before the silence got to your jittery nerves.
“Miss…” you started, but trailed off, hoping she would pick up your cue.
“Just call me Delilah, darling.” She smiled, not unkindly, eyes crinkling. Her crow’s feet reminded
you of manilla paper folded over itself countless times.
“Miss Delilah, then.” She raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. Oleander was purring like a motor as
she pet him.
“Why’d you come in here saying you wanted a black cat and only a black cat?” you asked.
“Simply because that is the truth. They’re such beautiful creatures, like living shadows. The other
cats I mentioned before?” Her expression turned fond. “A cream tabby and marbled calico, and I think a
darker one would complement them to make a lovely trio.”
“Well, what happens if you don’t like this one, or he doesn’t get along with the two you’ve got?” Or
whatever other animals she’s got running around her witch’s hut. “I’d really recommend that you keep an
open mind to the other cats here. They’re all sweethearts, I swear.”
She hummed indulgently. “I don’t think that will be a problem. I’ll be adopting this one.”
You lurched forward. “Wait, hold on a minute. You haven’t even held him yet! How are you so sure
you want this little guy?”
She turned to face you, hand still petting. “His energies are quite distinctive. He is curious and astute,
two qualities that I greatly admire. Oh, and a handsome devil, of course.” It could have been your imagina-
tion, but it seemed like Oleander’s purring kicked up a decibel.
You felt your face pulling into a frown, but you couldn’t help it. You’d met people like this before,
ones that made hasty decisions and came back a month later with cats that just “didn’t fit” with a side of ring-
worm or severe skittishness or what-have-you. You knew you had the right to deny someone an adoption, and
you could turn her away right then, but you were just… a bit afraid of being hexed.
“Ma’am, we require that you at least spend some time playing with him in the other room before you
make a decision.” Her eyes iced over so imperceptibly you would have missed it if you hadn’t been watching
her like a hawk. “Bu-but I can start on the paperwork in the meantime, if you like,” you backtracked.
“That sounds wonderful,” she said, syrupy-sweet, already scooping the kitten into her arms. He fit so
snugly into the crook of her elbow it was like they were made for each other. She strode past you into the
little room off to the side filled with colorful chairs and cat toys. Her perfume, an intoxicatingly strong, flow-
ery scent, lingered behind. It almost masked the biting antiseptic that had made its home in the air from years
You hadn’t even noticed the tenseness of your shoulders, but they dropped sharply as you exhaled,
suddenly free of her presence. You headed to the desk tucked in the corner by the door, covered with files
and papers of every hue. Relishing the chance to relax for a few minutes, you flopped down in the creaky
chair and began pulling out the forms you needed.
Still, you worried your bottom lip as you busied your hands, pulling papers and shuffling sheets.
Talking to anyone, but particularly strangers, was always so stressful. Even though you hadn’t come near the
topic you always danced around in conversation, in the backstage of your mind, shadows behind the curtain
kept you on edge.
The top half of the playroom’s door was four panes of glass arranged into a homey window. By
glancing out of the corner of your eye, you kept tabs on Miss Delilah.
She was kneeling on the floor, despite there being a couple chairs in the room. Hunched over, she
waved and wobbled her hand above the kitten’s head. Casting magic spells, maybe? Oh, no, Oleander jumped
up and swatted one of the dangling bangles on her bony wrist. You sniffed, unconvinced. Ah, now she was
pointing a laser for him to chase. Tracing magic runes on the floor, you’d bet. Nevermind, she gathered her
skirts and rose to her feet, and that’d be your cue to look busy.
You focused on the papers in front of you, but continued watching. In your peripheral vision, Delilah
gently closed the playroom’s door behind her, taking care not to smash the little paw that threatened to poke
through the crack. She leaned her hip on the desk and loosely crossed her arms, nails catching in the fabric.
The woman was silent a moment, appraising you.
“Excuse me,” she started. A sardonic smile twitched at the corner of your mouth. You knew where
this was going.
“Just call me Rowan,” you said.
Her eyes flicked up and down, from your layered, baggy clothes to your close-cropped hair. You
would have thought she was checking you out if you hadn’t gone through this whole song and dance before.
“Mister— Miss—” she broke off, expecting you to fill in the blank. You stayed silent, patiently
watching her struggle.
“Rowan, then.” Her smile was thin and a bit too stretched. She tilted her head with a steady gaze, and
you avoided eye contact.
“Why do you keep looking at me like I am going to steal your firstborn if you say the wrong thing?”
she asked, her smile pulling down at the edges to become faintly bemused.
That startled a little laugh out of you. “Kinda a weird turn of phrase there, but I suppose...” You
scratched your chin, expression settling into resentfulness. “I’ve seen my fair share of people come in who
are set on a certain type of cat, and they do really love the one they adopt. But then when it turns out to have a
personality and needs or isn’t quite so cute anymore, they bring it back. I know you’ve got other cats, but
from how quick you were set on this one… I just can’t shake the feeling.”
You could feel her piercing eyes on your face, despite you focusing on your lap.
“Is it my appearance?” she prodded. “It is rude to judge a book by its cover, you know. I understand
I look… offputting, to some people, but I quite enjoy my taste in fashion, and it’s hurting no one.”
You finally looked up to meet her gaze, a strange, daring twist in your chest overflowing into your
words. “Ma’am, I mean no offense, but it just makes you look like a witch.”
Regret instantly slapped you like the recoil from a rubber band. You gritted your teeth, trying to hide
the instinctual hunch of your shoulders, and averted your eyes again.
She threw her head back and laughed like windchimes, high harmonious notes, not the cackle you
would’ve thought. Not that you’d expected her to laugh at all.
“I love people like you,” she said, in between giggles. “So honest.”
Your stomach dropped, a wave of nausea from a roller coaster you didn’t even know you were on.
You were too shocked at the sudden shift in mood to do anything but watch her shake with mirth.
“I appreciate the compliment,” you said after a beat, dry as a bone.
Her laughter finally fading, she raised her eyebrows and leaned forward, earrings swinging with the
motion. “Honestly, I’m flattered,” she insisted. “I’m not a witch, but really, who is to say there aren’t some
out there?” Waves of long hair slid over her shoulders and the bangles on her wrists clinked together as she
gestured. “I do think, in a world as big and mysterious as ours, that magic exists, in little pockets and soft
words and dust on forgotten shelves, and there are surely people out there who can harness it.”
You fiddled with your sleeves. Volunteer training hadn’t prepared you for this. “That’s a real charm-
ing way of looking at it. Straight from a kid movie’s wise mentor.”
She laughed again, spindly hand covering her mouth. You felt a bit lighter, like a bubble in your
chest had burst. The feeling fizzled up your throat, slipping over your tongue as risky, invigorating words.
“Hey,” you blurted out, “my bad for not correcting you earlier, but the word you were looking for is
Mx.” You tried your hardest to look at her face, even if you couldn’t manage eye contact. “It’s like mister or
miss but gender-neutral. ‘Cause, um, I’m nonbinary and don’t like gendered words used for me so much.”
You sucked in a shallow breath through your teeth.
Delilah was taken aback for a moment, leaning away until she was upright again. “Then shouldn’t
you have known better to assume I was a woman when I introduced myself?” Arms crossed and staring down
her nose, she cut an intimidating figure.
“Oh no, I’m so sorry.” Your hands flailed wildly, desperately trying to diffuse your mistake. “I was
just trying to be polite, please correct me if—”
Another one of her tinkling laughs stopped you in your tracks. “I was just messing with you, darling.
Don’t worry, I know how it is. No harm done.”
Your hands dropped into your lap with a shaky sigh. In your mind’s eye, the shadows behind the
curtain receded, taking your nervousness away with them. The always-avoided topic had come to the fore-
front, and your dance around it went awry, spinning offstage. As it ended, the conversational partners bowed
to each other, smiling.
On Delilah’s side of the desk, she brushed papers aside to clear a spot big enough to sit on. The
thump as the surface took her weight, muffled by layers of fabric, helped ground you in reality. She swung
her legs back and forth in the air a few times, childlike, even though her height meant the tips of her toes
dragged on the floor. You pressed your lips together to stifle a giggle at how young she suddenly seemed, and
her eyes flicked to yours. She primly crossed her legs, giving you another tight smile.
“By the by, your name is lovely. Rowan means redhead, correct? After the color of the tree’s ber-
ries?” she asked, tilting her head to one shoulder.
You leaned an elbow on the desk, a grin tugging up one side of your mouth. “Yep. And thanks, I
picked it myself.”
The lady’s expression grew to mirror your own. She tugged a lock of her auburn hair as she looked
at the bright crimson mess on top of your head, eyes crinkling with unspoken humor. “We match.”
You laughed quietly, breathlessly. You had a hard time believing you weren’t in an unusually clear
dream. The last few minutes felt completely unreal.
“Choosing your own name, the words with which you wish to be defined, cutting out your own role
from the tangled thread of society… It’s very brave,” she said. Her face had settled into somberness again,
and you couldn’t look away, even if you’d wanted to. “You must be constantly fighting to be yourself, yet
you still care so much about others. Like him.” She gestured over her shoulder, where I could hear Oleander
batting at a toy in the playroom. “And the other animals here. And even myself, who you have decided to
trust with something so close to you.”
At that, your gaze broke. You looked down at your hands, wringing them in your lap, but not before
catching a glimpse of a soft smile on the woman’s face.
“It’s like what I was talking about before,” she continued, heedless of your embarrassment. “Magic.
It’s all around us, in objects and buildings, but in people as well. You don’t have to be a witch to recognize
You chuckled low in your throat. “I really don’t know if it’s that big a deal, Miss Delilah.” You
brushed a sleeve across your eyes nevertheless.
“Your gender is important to you, so I should treat it with respect, but I understand.” She slid off the
desk in a single smooth motion, and hesitated. “I’ll return to Oleander; he must be getting lonely in there.”
You glanced over her shoulder through the window. The kitten’s back paws were kicking rapidly as
he tumbled around with a stuffed mouse. “Yeah, of course. Figure out what toys he takes a liking to and how
he plays,” you said. “I promise not to sabotage your paperwork or anything.”
Her eyes softened. For the first time, you noticed they were honey-colored. “Of course; I’ll do that.
And I’ll keep in mind what you said before, about making sure he’s a good fit.” She turned to leave, and you
gave a little wave before returning to your forms.
Once she was back in the other room, you squeezed your eyes shut, chest tight and breathing shal-
low. You hoped she would adopt the cat. You wanted her to be happy more than anything else right then.
Not much later, you had her sign on the dotted lines, checked Oleander’s microchip, made copies of
his shot records, and all the other motions you had gone through a hundred times. She promised you she
would take good care of him, and you didn’t doubt her for a second.
The final step was to take a picture of the lady and the kitten for the shelter’s social media page. De-
lilah was smiling tightly but genuinely, holding Oleander with both hands. His bright yellow eyes were
trained on her jawline, and a small paw was placed on her collarbone.
They left after that, the woman sweeping out as gracefully as she came, but taking care not to jostle
the carrier she easily toted in one hand. After they were gone, everything seemed a bit duller, a noticeable
absence of color and life in the building’s muted tones, like the shelter itself was already missing her vi-
brance. You sat down at the desk chair, its old plastic creaking under your weight, and swiped through your
phone to find the picture you had taken again.
Even on your tiny cracked screen, Delilah was unmistakably winking. You didn’t remember her do-
ing that when you took the picture. But then again, it could have been your overactive imagination. Little
things like that are easy to miss.
As you inhale, I burn at my core.
Expel me from parted lips, chapped and aching
for a distraction. I give you comfort.
Lips caress me sweetly, though most times not.
I’m held between trembling hands.
Consuming me is your favorite pasttime.
You light me up to watch me burn.
Smoke flows into the air, carrying unspoken truths,
then dissolve into a whisper. Temporary peace.
Mind dizzy with relief. Each drag pulls you closer.
This dance of ours, addicting, always leaving you wanting more.
After you’re done, you toss me aside,
snuff out what’s left with the bottom of your shoe.
My memory sticks to you, proof heavy on your breath,
smokey fingertips, small traces of our short rendezvous.
I lay there discarded, but the joke is on you.
For every breath you took from me, I’ll take from you.
It won’t be long now, so I’ll see you soon.
A pack full of pleasure, you cannot resist.
A longing for serenity, that comes from our kiss.
Any Story I would Have Told
As Kashmir’s sweltering noon heat set in, we dug in and set up our observation post along the face
of a hill that over-looked a couple of small Pakistani villages along the border. Getting “dug in” was normal-
ly a task that was paired with bad puns and dick jokes, but now was met with silence as our now team of
three was coming to grips with loss of specialist Adams, our designated marksman and resident jokester; he
always knew how to make us laugh even when we were neck deep in shit.
Corporal Baker and I dug for what felt like forever to make our fighting position, nothing too crazy.
It was just a pit we dug into the side of the hill, only wide enough for the three of us, big enough to hold our
gear and still have room to lay down and deep enough to have our eyes peer over the wall when we were sit-
ting. When Corporal Baker and I finished digging, Sergeant Johnson threw all our gear into the pit and then
jumped into it and sat looking over the top of the wall.
“I’ll pull security first. Kilgore, Baker, y’all cool off a bit,” Sergeant Johnson said.
“Roger,” Baker and I replied.
Sergeant Johnson had a sad and distant look on his face, and it was clear to me that he was taking
Adams’ death harder than Baker or myself; Adams had always boasted about how they had been friends
since elementary school. And to add insult to injury, Johnson was the only one with Adams when he died. At
the time, Baker and I were running counter-sniper operations on a hill further north from our current observa-
tion post. Johnsons’ uniform looked beat up to hell, with a little bit of charring along the side of his plate car-
rier, and large blotch of dried blood on his lower back.
After about an hour of agonizing silence, Baker laid back against his rucksack and stared off into the
sky, while I pulled out and set up our long-range radio next to Sergeant Johnson. Sergeant Johnson sat on his
ruck and looked out over the village as he repeatedly flicked his rifles safety switch from SAFE, to SEMI,
and to FULL AUTO. I could no longer sit there and sink further into depression thinking about Adams’ ab-
sence, and I decided that if no one else would start talking, then I would.
“So’re we callin dibs on Adams’ shit before Uncle Sam gets his grubby dick beaters on’em?” I
asked. I was not serious, but I just wanted to return to our normal banter. Baker looked at me and let out a
slight grin before pulling out and flicking his half-empty tin of grizzly long-cut dip.
“Shit, man. Might as well. You cool with that, sarg?” Baker asked.
Sergeant Johnson looked back over his shoulder and replied, “Fuck it. Go for it.”
Almost immediately after Sergeant Johnson agreed, Baker shouted. “Dibs on his spank bank!”
“Eww! the fuck?!” I said. I knew Baker was a weirdo, but I didn’t expect him to call dibs on Adams
porn stash right of the bat.
Sergeant Johnson let out a little laugh before turning to face Baker and myself. “Baker, you do know
that the only thing on that hard drive is Adams’ home-made shit, right?” Johnson asked.
“Fuck it, I’m into that amateur shit,” Baker said. “They usually have better storytelling anyways.”
Baker then took a pinch of dip and packed it into his lip.
“Okay, ya fuckin’ weirdo,” I said. “You look like the dude that would watch porn for the story.”
I let out a little laugh as I glanced over at Sergeant Johnson who was shaking his head disapproving-
ly. After hearing Baker’s disturbing dibs, I had thought of one that I was certain would keep everyone talk-
“I call dibs on his flag patch,” I said.
“Hell no, Kilgore!” Baker shouted. “I should be the one to get his patch! We went through sniper
school together after all.”
“Fuck no,” Johnson said. “If anyone is gonna have it, it’s me.”
“Shit, well, how about a competition for it,” I said. “Whoever has the best story of Adams’ gets the
“Sounds good,” they replied.
I felt a little more at ease after they agreed and thought about what story I would tell as Baker pro-
ceeded to tell his. “So, no shit, there we were,” Baker said. “Adams and I were knockin’em back at that cow-
boy bar just off post.” Baker let out a smirk as he started tell his story.
Baker told us about how he had just walked in on his wife sleeping with our now former Platoon
Sergeant. He was sitting in his car when he decided to hit up Adams and vent a bit. They both decided that
getting shit-faced was the best way to escape reality for a bit. He said after about an hour of chasing the wis-
dom that lays at the bottom of the whiskey bottle, Baker, now a little more than tipsy, stumbled to his feet and
pointed at a cute girl sitting by herself at the bar. He told Adams to watch as he worked his Texas-city-boy
magic, or as Sergeant Johnson affectionately calls it “fake country magic,” to sweep the southern belle off her
feet. Adams called bullshit and made him put his money where his mouth was as he placed a twenty-dollar
bet on the bar girl having a boyfriend. Baker, not one to skip out on an opportunity to acquire more booze
funds, agreed to the bet.
Before Baker could explain the outcome of the bet, Sergeant Johnson interjected, “Baker, that was a
stupid fuckin idea.”
“The hell you mean by that?” Baker asked. “That shit was easy money. I fuckin ooze sex appeal.”
“Baker, I took a fat shit this morning and it had more sex appeal than you.”
“Shit, low blow,” I said as I let out a faint laugh. I removed my helmet and then loosened my plate
carrier to let air flow cool off my chest.
“Sarg,” Baker said, “I don’t know what crack you’re smokin’, but whatever it is, I want some.”
“I ain’t smoking shit,” Johnson replied. “You are just fuckin’ delusional is all.”
“Fair nuff,” Baker said. “Anyways, I walked on up and started a conversation all smooth like.”
Baker swore that the bar girl was instantly taken in by his “Texan charm,” and the she was hanging
on his every word, even though, she probably was just struggling to understand what the hell he was saying
through his slurred slang. After a couple minutes of Baker chatting her up, he said a mountain of a man
stormed over from the dance floor and shoved him back against the bar. The giant turned out to be bar girl’s
boyfriend, who was now holding Baker by the collar and screaming and swearing at the top of his lungs.
Baker said that Adams came over and attempted to pry the not-so-jolly giant off him, but then he was
shoulder-shoved and told to back off before he got hurt as well. Even though Baker was being lifted in the air
like a child doll, he noticed Adams walk behind the boyfriend. Initially, he thought nothing of it; however,
after a couple of seconds passed, Baker said he felt the worst pain he had ever felt in his life. Adams had let
rip a full-force kick to nuts, hitting both Baker and the boyfriend. Baker said the pain was so excruciating that
all he remembered was hearing a high-pitched yelp and that he felt nauseous after. He said that when he
came to, he and Adams were sitting on the curb outside the bar. Baker said that, according to Adams, after
the kick, the man-mountain let go of him and fell to the floor. Adams said that the second the boyfriend hit
the floor, Baker puked all over the dude before passing out from the pain.
“Shit, that is what you get for trying to be fuckin Rico Suave,” Johnson said as he let out a hearty
“If I knew he’d kick the family jewels like he was trying to score a forty-yard field goal, I might not
have,” Baker said.
“Don’t fuckin lie,” I said. “Your dumbass would have done it anyways,” I said as I laughed.
“Yeah, you’re right,” Baker said as he finally joined us in our laughter. After a few seconds, as our
laughter grew softer, Baker’s smile began to soften, and his eyes became red as he teared up. “Honestly
though,” Baker said. “I’m glad he went drinkin’ with me.”
“How so?” I asked.
“Well, let’s just say that if I had been alone that night, I probably would have gone the way of Kurt
Cobain and tried to suck start my twelve gauge.”
I was shocked by Baker’s words, and the only thing that I could say was, “Fuck, man.”
“I’m glad he went too,” Johnson said. “We can’t be losing our cracked-out cowboy.”
“Aww, sarg,” Baker said. “For a second there it sounded like you were actually glad I’m still here.”
“Naw, you’re fuckin’ delusional,” Johnson said. “You’re hearing things. You might be dehydrated
from that fat ass lip. You should drink some water.”
“And you should see the doc,” Baker said. “To see about getting surgery to remove that stick that’s
buried in your ass.”
“A’ight, smartass. You just volunteered yourself for the next security shift.”
“More like fuckin’ volun-told.”
Baker then begrudgingly grabbed his rifle and stood in a hunched over position, trying not expose
too much of his silhouette over the edge of or pit. Sergeant Johnson crouch-walked past him and sat towards
the back of the pit. Johnson reached into his shoulder pocket and pulled out a smashed packet of cigarettes
and a lighter. He began slapping the box against the palm of his wrist.
“A’ight, I guess it is time for my story,” Johnson said as he placed a beaten-up cigarette in his mouth
and lit it up.
Sergeant began to tell us about the day before, how they were providing overwatch for a group of
Special Forces guys, who were questioning the locals in the hopes of finding a local who was housing a cou-
ple of insurgent VIPs. They sat in their fighting position for about an hour scanning the SF guys’ surround-
ings for signs of hostile activity. Johnson told us that Adams said that something felt off about the whole situ-
ation, and he said to have the Howitzers ready and waiting for a “call for fire” mission.
Before Johnson could carry on with his story, Baker, now sitting in the in the spot that over-looked
the village, turned his head over his shoulder towards us and interrupted. “Adams’ did have that fuckin’
strong gut feelin’ a lot.”
“Hell yeah,” Johnson said. “Scary part is that his gut was usually right.”
“You’re fuckin’ tellin me! He said the same shit when I married my ex.”
“Damn! He warned you, and you still married that bitch?” Johnson asked.
“Dude, you are dumb as hell,” I said.
“Anyways, so he tells me something is off, so I immediately start shittin’ bricks,” Johnson said as he
resumed telling his story.
Johnson told us that not even five minutes after Adams spoke up, Johnson picked up his binoculars
and spotted a man raising an RPG towards SF guys on the third floor of the building adjacent to them. Sec-
onds after Johnson called out the target, Adams took aim and took the shot before Johnson could radio the
guys on the ground. Seconds later, Johnson said the guys on the ground turned around and readied their
weapons as they watched the insurgent’s body fall from the building. Johnson then watched through his
bino’s as the SF guys quickly made their way back through the village towards the vehicles stationed at the
exfil point. However, while the guys were making their way to the exfil, all the women and children fled into
the buildings as a horde of insurgents poured into the streets and began firing. Johnson then picked up his
rifle and began providing covering fire alongside Adams. Once the SF dudes reached their vehicles, Johnson
said they jumped in and peeled off, like they were auditioning for the next Fast and Furious movie, but by
that point, the insurgents had already figured out Johnson and Adams’ location.
As the insurgents began to make their way up the hill and lay down heavy fire up towards the obser-
vation point, Adams looked over at Johnson and said it was time to make like a fart in the wind and vanish.
However, Johnson told him that they couldn’t break contact until the SF guys escaped the valley. Johnson
said that Adams called bullshit, and he said that they would be overrun long before that happened. Sergeant
Johnson told us that he ran out of ammo by the time the insurgents made it halfway up the hill, and that Ad-
ams was down to his last magazine. It was at that point that Sergeant Johnson grabbed the radio, called to the
artillery and said “Broken Arrow. Broken Arrow. Fire NFA Black.” This radio call was something that every
combat unit feared. It meant that friendlies are being overrun and that there was no time, so they ordered
them to fire artillery onto the friendly position. Johnson told us how after he called Broken Arrow, Adams
looked at him with a calm smile on his face and then said, “See you in Valhalla.” Johnson said he heard the
whistle of the artillery rounds overhead as the voices of the insurgents became clearer. Johnson told us that he
then buried his face in the dirt and covered has head with his hands, and that after he did that he felt the
weight of another person lay over top of him just as the rounds started to impact and explode around them.
After this point, Sergeant Johnson stayed silent as he took a second to clear his throat and breathe.
Neither Baker nor I dared to say a word as Johnson began to speak again. He told us that after the explosions
stopped, he sat up, rolled the body off himself, and stared at the sky in disbelief that he was still breathing.
Johnson then looked down to his left and saw the body of Adams. Half of his body was charred from the in-
tense heat from the explosion, and he had a large chunk of shrapnel sticking out the side of his stomach. Ad-
ams was barely conscious and hanging on by a thread. Johnson said that as he grabbed his hands, Adams tried
to speak through his wheezing. Adams used the last bit of strength he had to tell Johnson, “You look like
shit.” Johnson knew Adams was teasing, but he couldn’t bring himself to laugh at it as Adams voice and
wheezing became weaker with every second that passed. Johnson told us that the last words Adams said were
for all of us and they were, “Love you guys.”
“Fuck, man,” Baker said. Even though Baker wasn’t facing us, Johnson and I could hear him snif-
“Baker, don’t be fuckin cryin’ over there,” Johnson said. “Snipers don’t fuckin cry.”
As Sergeant Johnson said those words, I looked at him and saw his eyes grew red and began to tear
up. Hearing Johnson’s story took its toll on me. I felt as if I had been punched in the chest repeatedly, and it
made any story I would have told leave my mind. While struggling to maintain my composure, I managed to
finally speak. “You fuckin win, sarg,” I said. “You can have his flag.”
“Thanks, Kilgore,” Johnson said softly.
“Fuck Adams for leaving us to pick up the pieces,” Baker said. “He was a buddy-fucker in the end,
“That’s our pain in the ass for ya.”
As Johnson said those words, neither he nor Baker could hold back their tears any longer, and they
began to sob. Seeing their true feelings finally flow out, I felt my own grip over my own emotions weaken.
As I began to cry, I looked to the sky towards Adams and said, “‘’Till Valhalla.”
Third Place Prose
Our Backs are Accustomed to the Cold
Mateo Latapie Trenkenchu
White pebbles pave the pool’s platform.
The sky no longer picks and drills at our eyes.
Clouds swim languidly to sleep in brighter grasses.
Our clothes are wrapped about our skin.
Frosty air snaps and bites at every movement,
but beneath skin and fascia, blood rushes.
Cells sprint through muscles and limbs and digits.
Our fingers check themselves for breath.
Flickering and twisting through the tracks across our palms,
nails dig their way through to meet scarlet.
Hands clench, eyes meet, hairs run down necks and clasp the concrete.
Our head’s contents are nowhere to be searched for.
Clothes stretch before ripping to find themselves lonely.
Skin swirls before crackling to find itself freezing.
Flesh throbs before touching to find itself melding.
Our bodies neither end nor begin.
With the soft light of a dying star illuminating our features,
With the warmth of a sunbeam splitting on a glossy surface,
Nobody else is here
Sophia Sierra Quintero
As I shoved my foot into the pale pink pointe, my hands shook, and my only clear thought was a
quote from one of Julie’s favorite books: “If loss was a taste, it would be as bitter as apple seeds, but instead,
it’s a sound. A grated chalkboard after an unfinished symphony.” Julie’s pointe shoes were so small, and yet,
I had big shoes to fill. Five minutes before my cue, I still couldn’t fit in the pointe shoes. My chest already
tightened, I felt myself choke up and my breathing hollow out. Every inhale felt empty, devoid of any actual
I caught sight of two pictures of Rudy, Julie’s five-year-old boy, in the mirror of the dressing room
counter, one from the day of his birth and another on a memorable beach day. He was incredible, and I loved
him so much. Julie was also incredible. Julie, Aida, Rudy, and I had spent a day down at the beach last year,
and we all pitched in and got him plenty of sand-castle building tools and two pairs of floaties. He served us
sand-pies, gave us sand-spa-days, and built a moat to catch the sea. What stuck out to me, I reminisced, was
that he gave some little girl his floaties right off his arm when he saw that she was scared of the waves. Were
all preschoolers this kind, or was it something special that Julie passed onto her only child?
That was probably the most Julie-esque thing I had ever seen. My parents told us about something
Julie did way before we could really remember it: my father went back to the barrio he grew up in and gave
away toys for free. One girl couldn’t come out fast enough, and she was left with nothing for Christmas. Julie
glanced down at her hand and gave her the doll she had been cradling all afternoon. Our parents had seen us
as a shining duo that could take over the dance studio. Ambitious, but I think that only Julie was game-set-
match for their expectations. I wasn’t even sure I loved to dance that much anyway. All of this was always
for Julie. It was rare to be your sister’s understudy, but I never expected to replace her after she died in a car
My hands grasped the gray plastic seats like a lifeline and blinked repeatedly. With all these people
around, I ducked my face and raised my shoulders protectively. I didn’t have headphones with me, but maybe
this was enough to get across to my surroundings that I didn’t want to be talked to. It had been pretty shitty.
The universe owed me that much. This entire week people were stuck in between congratulating me for a
significant promotion into a leading role and apologizing for my loss. I didn’t want to discuss either. As I felt
tears sliding down my face, I pushed a silencing fist against my mouth and grabbed a tissue from Julie’s
Turning my head, I saw Aida next to the costumes at the end of the room. Her short, black hair swiv-
eled when she turned and saw me. She jogged towards me since you’re not allowed to run backstage. She’d
always been by my side since I started dancing with this company five years before. Although we had all
been close for the past five years, seeing her reminded me more of Julie and pranks played on the fellow cast
and crew members. Every single passive-aggressive comment from Allegra about me being the second-best
Kent sister faded away. How silly of me to hold small comments against her in a time like this. With my left
fist still against my mouth and right-hand switching between dabbing my eyes and hailing Aida down like a
taxi cab, I probably hadn’t looked myself.
“Jul- shit. I’m sorry, Allegra,” Aida barely caught herself and promptly apologized. Her eyes sof-
tened. We’d talked earlier this week, only a couple days after the car accident, and she told me she had start-
ed seeing Julie’s profile everywhere. No one else looked as much like her as I did. She stood behind me and
placed her hands on my shoulders so that we both faced the mirror. I could see her dressed all in black with
glitter and skin-colored patches on her wrist, thighs, and her ankles. Aida leaned over me, remorse clear as
the grimace on her lips. Her hazel eyes flicked over my face, and she reached into her multicolored fanny
“No, it’s fine. You used to do Julie’s make-up too. That,” I hiccuped, removing my hand from my
mouth, “that’s what I need you here for.” I gestured to my face, which must have been awfully smudged with
make-up. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to mess up your work, Aida. I’m sorry.”
“Ally, it’s okay. You’re doing the best you can. It’s okay,” she said, punctuating her words with a
squeeze to my shoulder as we made eye contact in the mirror. It didn’t seem like we were talking about make
-up maintenance anymore. “She picked you to take over custody of Rudy if anything happened to her. And
now an accident happened. She knew you would be the best thing for him and Ally, baby, I know she felt
glad that you were going to watch over her little boy.”
Aida said more, but I couldn’t bear to hear it, so I ducked my head and nodded when it seemed ap-
propriate. She was well-meaning, but when something like this happened, I didn’t want to hear “it’s okay.” I
couldn’t hear anger from the delicate strings, but I could hear the swells and drops of the music. I focused
only on that and imagined sheet music in front of me to follow along, and like a miracle, I heard my cue ap-
proaching and started getting ready.
No more time to try to finesse my way into pointe shoes I was never supposed to wear. My perfor-
mance shoes were still in a shoebox under my bed. No need when you could take the original pointe made for
the first choice. Somehow taking pink pointe out of a box felt the same as watching Julie being lowered in
I shoved my foot inside, possibly messing up the bandages on my feet to keep them from bleeding
further, and the seams bulged and protested but didn’t break. Julie’s shoes never would. She took too much
care in preserving her performance pointe set to ever fail under pressure. I wished they did. Maybe they
would call off the whole performance and find someone who could fit in them. I stood up from my seat, and I
knew by the end of the first song, my feet would reopen scabs and bleed.
I couldn’t stop the tears as I went on stage. My breathing faltered and worked hard not to let it show.
I felt tears trail my cheek in blobs, I made no move to wipe them away, and I acted as if they weren’t there, as
if I wasn’t going through the hardest time in my life. As a seasoned performer, I had learned many things
before this night. One, stage make-up was thick enough to prevent even a beet-red blush from showing up on
your face if it was applied with enough layers. Stage make-up was tough enough to stand the sweat the entire-
ty of the cast of the Nutcracker worked up. Two, stage lights were so overpowering that only the first row has
a chance of seeing you cry, but if you stick to your guns, it turned out all right. I knew all these things like
the back of my hand.
I could barely remember the plot of the story I was supposed to perform. I was made of only move-
ment and emotions. My arms knew what they were supposed to do. Motions drilled into muscles for a role I
always assumed I’d see someone else perform. My arms curved, but all I noticed was when they weren’t an-
gled right and how a better ballerina, not the understudy’s understudy, could do it better. Tchaikovsky flowed
through them anyway. They did what they were supposed to do. They did the best they could.
There were other things I learned. Tchaikovsky wrote the Nutcracker shortly after his sister Alexan-
dria died. People say that the Pas de Deux wasn’t truly for the Nutcracker but a requiem for her. My body
moved with as much grace as I was capable. For my sister. Grief over the death of our sisters was so over-
powering, I felt a kinship with Tchaikovsky. My hands gracefully landed on my partner’s shoulders, and my
leg hovered slowly at a right angle. As my partner, the Prince Coqueluche, promenaded around me, turning
me, I felt as plastic as a music box, but my eyes saw markings on the floor and blinding light. Then, I made
eye contact with him for the third time tonight, twice in the photographs, and now in the flesh. Rudy. Another
thing you learn early on in ballet is the pirouette. One thing people might not know about pirouettes is that
you have to focus on one point directly in front of you so that you don’t get dizzy, called spotting. Though the
idea is to look out into the audience, once I saw him, once I saw Rudy, I could not take my eyes off of him. I
could not break away.
Rudy sat next to his grandparents, my parents, and wore a smart, small tuxedo for the second time
this week, but it looked like he got a different tie. This blue one suited him much better than the black one.
Aida had clearly picked it out. His eyes were wide, and I knew what he was seeing. He saw his mother in me,
in my movement, in my costume, in my pointe. I threw my arms and face sharply left and towards the ground
on cue, music swelling. The prince’s hands gripped my waist, and I floated upwards, opening my arms and
picking up my legs resembling a flower, just like Julie did. Coming back down, I made eye contact with
His soft, entranced gaze burned into my eyes. Did he know? Did he know I was trying to fit myself
into the mold of Julie? That I was replacing his only other constant in his life? But as soon as these thoughts
came, one more took over. One that made me blink more tears away. Did he know? Did he know that I loved
Just like that, I felt steel cables connect us, and I knew precisely what Julie meant. I could do nothing
but love him. He was my nephew before, but as of tonight, he was my son. “Oh,” I whispered. Tears came in
full force, but not of sorrow this time. Of love. Rudolf was this little boy who was going to go to school in a
week. In five years, he was going to have book reports he would only barely turn in, and I would scold him
about procrastinating. I was going to take him to get his permit in eight years. He was going to get his license
in nine, and I would be the one to tell him to keep his hands on ten-and-two on the steering wheel. He was
going to graduate in ten, and I was going to be the one to ask for an honor roll.
As hard as it was to lose a sister, he had lost his mother. Rudy had turned to his grandparents after
the funeral, since he was supposed to be staying with them until I got my apartment organized. He had asked
when his mom was going to wake up so they could get a Wendy’s Frosty. It hurt like hell to hear that coming
from him because I knew that when Julie spent too much time at the dance company, she would take him out
to dinner the next week. I would have to really help him understand the finality of death now that I was sup-
posed to take care of him.
In my seven years of knowing him, I had somehow never felt this moment. There was a difference in
loving him like my nephew and this steel cable connection, the love of a son. I loved him.
By the final waltz, I knew what my feet would look like.
After the final bow, I snuck a glance at my pointe. The light pink pointe was gray on the bottom with
all the dirt it had collected, and they had darker, rosier areas stained by blood. These pairs of pointe needed to
be thrown away. As I walked back, wincing with each step, the ribbon on the pointe finally broke. And with
the ribbon, the string that held my body, keeping my spine straight and head up, broke too. I almost col-
lapsed. It used to be held up by the constant pressure of the performance, but as the closing night wound
down, I felt all pressure snap away and my legs wobble. I would have collapsed if it wasn’t for black-sleeved
arms with glitter and skin-colored smudges catching me out of nowhere.
“Aida!” I shouted, blissed out, and blinking away tears. She had caught me by the front and propped
me up with her body. I wrapped my arms around hers and pulled myself upright. “Did you see me?”
“Pas de Deux was beautiful. It was different. It was you,” she responded, walking us back to the
dressing rooms. “It was the most intense performance I’d seen in years. A hell of a closing night.”
“A hell of a closing night,” I echoed. Once we got down to Julie’s seat, now mine, in the dressing
room, I sat down on my chair immediately, and she noticed how beat up my pointe looked.
“I told you not to wear those shoes. They’re too small and haven’t been broken in yet.” She scowled
at me, kneeling down to peer at them. “Look at you. You’re a mess.”
“Haven’t even taken them off yet,” I said, ripping up the remainder of the lace and undoing the rest.
As I wrestled and popped my feet off the pointe, we both hissed in unison.
“How could you dance on these?” she gasped, scandalized. Her hand reached out to my left foot and
immediately pulled back, only to return and hover again. My feet were both openly bleeding, not entirely
uncommon, but since they had already been bleeding the week before, it frankly looked like I overworked
them. It was kind of gross, actually, my big toe had a bandage that was bleeding through and hanging down. I
think I broke another toenail. There were patches of skin that were rubbed open and raw and veins were bulg-
ing. There was a good chance I put too much pressure on a fracture and caused a break. I rolled my ankle and
it felt both relieving and incredibly painful, the way you feel after a splinter has been pulled out. If a scar
came out of this one, I wouldn’t be shocked.
“You need to get a doctor to look at this. This… this is, like, majorly fucked up.”
“I might not dance again,” I said. “I can’t risk further injury now that I get to walk Rudy to school.” I
made eye contact with Aida, corner of her mouth twitching. Even as the words left me, it didn’t hurt. I no
longer felt the need to bore down holes into the wooden floors. Instead, I felt Rudy coming closer with some-
thing akin to a Spidey-Sense, probably running to the dressing room. With a shock, I realized what he would
see, and my gaze snapped up to Aida. “I need a bucket of ice water.”
“Right away,” she responded, shooting up and turning before speed-jogging down the hall. I felt a
little bad as soon as she left. She must have thought I was trying to salvage my feet. I didn’t really care about
that so much as I needed to look like they hadn’t been through a meat grinder; no need to give the kid two
I was so excited to teach him everything I knew about the world, like the history of ballet. I never
quite loved the ballet performances like my family did. I really liked it, and I loved seeing Julie, but we were
never going to be the “Kent Sisters” our parents wanted us to be. Besides with the number of hours needed to
practice, all that would lead to me missing Rudy growing up. Maybe I’d go back to school. I loved history;
it’s why I was a history major for a while. I could teach him everything there was to know and more about
ballet and all the work it took for his mom to get here, and more importantly, I would be with him.
“Here it is!” Aida wheeled in a bucket on a cart and placed it on the floor with what must’ve needed
considerable strength. I plopped my feet into the water, feeling the ice grip around my toes and the water
gained a pink tint. She slapped my comfy loafers onto the floor beside it, the ones I must’ve walked into the
studio with. I had entirely forgotten about them. They had a roll of bandages on top, and I remembered
enough to know that wasn’t my doing. Aida had picked up a fresh set of bandages for me, without even being
“Thank you,” I told her, looking up. Her mouth was open to reply, when all of a sudden, she was
interrupted by my name being shouted from behind.
“Aunty Ally!” I heard. My head twisted around and my entire body moved, splashing water on the
floor. I saw his little blonde hair bounce towards me.
“Rudy!” I exclaimed. I opened my arms and twisted my body to face him while keeping my feet in
the bucket. He slammed into me and wrapped his arms around my neck. I squeezed him back, and he was the
first thing that fit right all week.
Like a muscle, the more it’s stroked,
the stronger and more manipulative it grows. Just ask
the raging grinding waters of the Comal, forever
in tumultuous turmoil, or hear the pesky
persistent buzz of the not so tuned
timeless radio, the deafening rumble
of an engine, the maddening slap and flap of tires
as they burn and blaze the asphalt. The realization
that acid turns the litmus red. And don’t forget,
the squawking seagulls as they dive-bomb
the salty crashing waves for thrashing fish. And
in a fit of fury, the hail hops and plops on the top of the
green algae-ridden skylight. They say, let fire lazily
atrophy a little into embers; it’s a combative challenge, a cruelty
of nature, the screech of a monkey, the roar
of a gorilla or the snarl of a wolf when encroached.
The hollow scream of cracked wood
as the ball plummets through the tension of time.
It’s all around. Out the window, behind the
Bug-and-fungus-infested yellowed plants, dogs
growl and bark at a trespasser in the dark. Even
in the kitchen, the glistening glass plates and
classy crystal glasses no longer tiptoe but instead
tumble off the table in a temper tantrum. Fortunately,
my wrath can be tamed by taking a mud bath.
Eyes without a Face Angie Grajales Villada
Rome Edna Corona
Candid Self-Portrait Johnson Nguyen
Self-Portrait Angie Grajalas Villada
Manere Auream Amy Young
I fill up
I fill up a helium balloon in
my Chest to see you
swelling elation for limerence,
a hot-air balloon pulsating heat as growth;
imprinting something that sounds
like sweet nothings whispered into the clouds
by a skywriter too fuzzy on the words
to transcribe it clear, but he’s got the tone,
he's got the feel,
and it's taut.
Like the spark down the rails of my spine
after I place my hand on the small of
your back and you straighten up,
when iron props iron.
I fill up to zero gravity in my soles,
heel to bridge to fluffy toes
like walking in Moon boots
that have real bounce in ‘em,
real springing tension in the metals friction
when I squat down and reach out to draw
what wordy synonyms can't impress
onto the crinkle above your brow
when you raise a latte-styled eye,
or suppress a wild laugh, cause you've got the tone,
you've got the feel,
and it flows
like long, sweeping sweaters
turning and twirling on the landing
of the 32nd flight of stairs
with feet and vertical distance flying by,
taking steps four or five at a time,
when feather begets feathers.
But this time,
I fill up my pockets with pebbles
cause I might fly away
but I won’t leave the ground.
“I mean, be honest with yourself.” Shala takes a sip of her coffee before continuing, her pink-purple
skin bright in the light. “It’s not getting any easier to find people. The galaxy is getting smaller every day.”
I roll my eyes. “That’s just being dramatic.”
“No, think about it!” Shala says, glancing around the shopping floor. “There are so many dating ser-
vices and matchmakers out there. Everyone uses them. It’s unrealistic to expect a meet-cute in this day and
age. Everybody is pairing up and settling down, especially now that interspecies marriage is fully legal.”
Above us, the artificial sunlight flickers. I glance up—the screens high above us simulate weather,
giving the indoor city the full outside experience. There are plants too, tucked into every empty corner and
center kiosk. Shala says it’s for the oxygen they produce, but I think they just look nice. Sure enough, the
panels begin to darken and virtual clouds roll in.
Shala’s still babbling about my love life, her slanted, dark eyes gleaming with excitement. She really
fits in here, with her iced coffee in one taloned hand and a shopping bag in the crook of her elbow. The plum
flush her skin always has seems brighter than normal, more saturated. Her ashen bangs are pushed behind the
protrusions on her forehead (not grand enough to really be called horns, but too small to ignore). Shala looks
down at me, her heavy brow casting a shadow on her face. She smiles. She’s much taller than I am thanks to
her half-Kibrati blood, but I think she’s tall for a Kibrati anyway.
“Oh!” She grabs me, steering me towards the door at the end of the hall. “Here we go.”
It’s decorated in gaudy pink and red hearts with a kind-faced Barbartu standing out front. She’s
handing out pamphlets and gesturing people inside, her long, pointed ears twitching happily every time a
bystander stops to talk. Her four eyes have gaudy blue contacts in, but they somehow work with the blue and
orange of her uniform.
“Hello!” The Barbartu beckons us over. “Are you here for the matchmaker?”
Her fur is nicely groomed, tidy around the nape of her neck and her ears. It’s a light brown-orange
dusting on her skin, fading towards her shoulders.
Shala nods excitedly. “My friend here is looking for a match!”
I groan. “I’m dragging my feet every step of the way.”
The Barbartu grins, giggling a bit. “That’s okay. We’re used to it. Here’s our brochure. Go on inside.
We’ll be right with you.”
Through the door is no less embarrassing. The walls are a pleasant pink shade, with lava lamps and
other fluorescent lighting drawing the room in color. Soft music plays overhead, and the only seating availa-
ble is a low-to-the-ground leather sofa with curved edges. There’s a massive fish tank in the room, seemingly
obscuring a doorway behind it. Fish of all shapes and colors swim past, nipping at the plants and each other.
“This is so swanky,” Shala says. “Wow. I feel like we’re in a strip club.”
“This is mortifying,” I tell her. “I would rather be in a strip club. At least people would leave me
alone once they realized I don’t have money.”
“Cheer up.” Shala nudges me, grabbing the brochure. “Here, look at this. A 96% success rate! That’s
“Only 96%?” I ask.
Shala shrugs. “Maybe they had an off year.”
I close my eyes just to escape the onslaught of pink. “I’m gonna be in the failing 4%.”
“Stay positive. You are about to get matched with the love of your life.”
“Come on.” I crack my eyes open. “You really believe in this stuff? Dating sites and matchmaking?”
Shala turns to me, her grey-blonde hair completely pink in the lights. Her jaw looks slack, like she’s
just absorbing the room. “Of course.” She shrugs. “I have to.”
I nod, glancing down at the brochure. The couples on it look pretty happy, at least.
Another Barbartu comes from behind the giant fish tank. “If you could fill this out for me, please.”
She hands me a tablet with some sort of questionnaire on it. Shala rests her chin on my shoulder to
watch me fill it out. She has to contort in the chair, awkwardly sticking one of her legs over the armrest.
“Oh my god, your answers are gold,” Shala says.
I yank the tablet away from her. “Okay, you can’t bring me to a sleazy matchmaker and then judge
my preferences. You have no ground here.”
“Okay, jeez, I’ll leave you alone,” Shala says. “I didn’t take you for an alien-lover though.”
My cheeks heat up almost instantly—hopefully Shala can’t tell under all the neon lighting.
She snatches the tablet from my slack grip. “Seriously, you marked pretty much every species but
human as a go ahead. You’re freaky.”
My face is on fire. “I’m going home.”
Shala cracks up, wrapping her arm around me in an iron grip. “No you aren’t. We’re finding you an
alien hottie. Suddenly the fact that you didn’t like anybody I’ve set you up with makes so much sense.”
“I don’t see how you have any room to judge me. You’ve dated just about every species possible,” I
Shala shrugs. “I’m a halfie. It’s different.”
“No it isn’t,” I say, grabbing the tablet back and resuming the questionnaire.
Shala stays quiet, her eyes on the fishtank. “That thing’s making me hungry.”
“You can’t be serious,” I tell her.
The Barbartu comes back out and beckons for me to follow. I shoot Shala a “please do not raid these
poor people’s fish tank” look before following.
Past the fish tank is a beaded curtain - I duck through it. On the other side the light isn’t quite as gar-
ish. Earth tones dominate in here, with synthetic wood panelling that looks almost as good as the real thing.
The matchmaker isn’t Barbartu, like I had assumed, but Ayabba.
She’s green-blue, with tentacles trailing down her back. Her skin looks smooth, like an eel, and her
eyes are a deep, iridescent black-green that reflect up at me. She’s wearing terra-cotta robes, with strategical-
ly placed slits in the fabric to show some smooth skin.
“Come in, sit down.” Her voice is garbled, like she’s using a breathalyzer. She doesn’t sound as ma-
tronly as I’d expected, her posture and voice showing youth.
There’s a brown floor pillow next to her, embroidered with gold and orange. It looks ornate, like
somebody had slaved over it. It stares up, taunting me. Is this a test? Will how I sit on this priceless floor
cushion determine who I spend the rest of my life with?
“Don’t be shy,” the matchmaker says. “Sit.”
Who am I to argue. I sit.
“So,” The matchmaker begins. “What should we talk about.”
My mouth feels dry. “Don’t you normally take the lead on that?”
She shrugs, fishing a tablet out of her robes and crossing her legs. She scrolls idly, strategically hold-
ing it so I can’t get a glance. I crane my neck even further. She notices and tilts it further away from me, mak-
ing a gurgling noise.
“Okay. You’re going to meet your match at half past five. Today.” The matchmaker glances down,
feigning surprise. “And, oh, would you look at that. It’s quarter past! Better get going!”
The Barbartu assistant appears out of nowhere, wrapping her clawed hand around my arm and pull-
ing me up. “Thanks for your patronage!” She says, hauling me to the beaded door. “The bill will be posted to
your account automatically.”
“Wait,” I say. “Where am I going to meet them?”
“Um,” the matchmaker says, “how would I know?”