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Fiction, Guest Posts

Hot Days Are For Listening

December 30, 2023
broken TV television

There is nothing but talk in the village now.  Buzzing talk like hornets.  Who did it?  How dare they?  Who could betray us like this?  There will be a trial at the kgotla tomorrow, even though there are still no suspects.  No one has confessed and no one will.  They are afraid to be outcasts in their own home, avoided and shunned.  All anyone knows is that the new 55” high definition TV screen in the community hall is shattered.  Mma Bogwasi found the stone that did it lying on the cement slab floor of the building.  “Someone has hatred in their heart,” she cries loudly, shuffling past each of our doorways in turn.  “Oh Lord, forgive us!”  I want to swat her words away from my ears.  It is too hot today for loud talk.

I go to sit at the edge of the yard where I can hear the wind in the motshaba trees.  When I feel the sand turning cooler beneath my feet, I perch myself on the large tire that encloses Mama’s herb garden, daring the dusty rubber to scald the backs of my legs.  Insects chirr their secret language in the nearby brush.  I smile, thinking how there will be no more screaming football or slick politicians babbling from the TV with promises of more jobs and schools, like their mere words are diamonds spilling through the screen.  Mama tells me I shouldn’t sit so far from the house because up in the trees is where the leopards like to hide.  I imagine they are sitting among the chattering leaves, looking down at me while I boldly raise my face to them, both of us enjoying the shade.  Leopards don’t watch TV.  They prefer to watch children like me and think about eating them.  I don’t think they will eat me though.  They like relaxing in the shade better.

The TV was a present from the Americans.  They came to our village three times.  That is two more times than all the other foreign visitors, so we knew they would eventually bring what we wanted.  The elders ask for a TV every time foreigners visit our corner of the Okavango for safari… which is many more times than three.  They said it would keep the young people from trouble like drinking and having sex.  But I don’t see how having sex is any real trouble.  My oldest sister is pregnant and she lets me touch her belly which sometimes jumps.  I can see how a jumping belly could cause some trouble, but it keeps her from drinking, so I think it is better for her belly to jump than to be sick.

“Foufetse!” she calls me now, “Get some more water!  Hurry!”

She never asks nicely, even though she is only four years my elder.  But I am happy to hear her voice.  Sometimes, if I sit too still in Mama’s garden, I become invisible, and all day people cannot see me.  Even when they walk past on their way to the community hall, so close I can touch them, they do not see me.  I worry that one day I will disappear for good.  But my sister reappears me now with her barking demands: “Foufetse!  Now!  The baby is coming!”

It is the middle of the day, so the sand in the road burns my feet, encouraging me to shuffle faster with the full water bucket to the house.  I stop in the cool outside the open doorway where the reeds from the roof overhang to form a moat of shadow.  From inside, I can smell the gas that runs our small appliances and the mustiness of old clothes, waiting for washing day.  “Sister?” I call into the darkness.

Mama steps outside and takes the water from me.  “What took you so long?” she scolds before slipping back inside, not waiting for an answer.  I hear my sister groan.  I stand there for a moment, wishing I could watch.  I wonder what it looks like for life to enter a newborn body and give it its first breath.  I wonder, standing so close, if the curse I was born with might pass on to the new baby like lice.

I wander into the deserted kgotla—an assembly of empty plastic chairs, gritty with dirt and disuse, gathered beneath the acacia trees.  Meetings have been few since the arrival of the TV.  The elders congregate in the western-style community hall instead.  It is hot inside because the roof is made of tin instead of thatch and there is no breeze.  I do not know why they prefer it there.  The TV talks over everyone, even the village chief.  Chief Tshepo is often long-winded, but the TV is even longer and windier.  It talks loud and fast, like it doesn’t need air to breathe.  Sometimes it shouts “Goooooal!” and everybody in the hall shouts.  Usually, though, everybody is silent while the TV chatters on and on.

Since I am invisible again, I sit in one of the prohibited chairs and pretend that I am an elder.  “A community is not a community without honor, and honor means we speak only what is truth!” I parrot Chief Tshepo.  “So if you are truthful, speak!  If not, hold your peace!”  I wait, letting my words ring across the kgotla.  “Who broke the TV?” I demand.

Someone laughs.  It is a surprising sound.  Usually I am alone here while the whole village is in the community hall.  But now the TV is broken and there is laughter outside again.  I smile at Mma Bogwasi.  “I did not hear you arrive, Mma.  Hurry, come join us.  The meeting has already started.”

“You going to become the village chief one day, little Foufetse?” she asks, creaking heavily into the chair next to me.  Normally, she would stand with the other women and the children during a meeting, but since it’s just the two of us, she makes herself comfortable.

“Yes,” I say, sitting up straight, “and when I am chief, I will ban TVs forever from the village.”

Mma Bogwasi’s voice turns serious.  “Why would you say that, child?  That TV has made people here very happy.  A terrible shame someone went and broke it.”

“When everyone is watching in there,” I complain quietly, “the village stops breathing.”  I don’t expect her to understand.

“You’re a strange one, Foufetse.  God help your mother, raising a child like you.  But I suppose you’re the only one here who isn’t all that upset about what happened, seeing as you never got to watch the TV in the first place.”

“The village dies,” I continue in a whisper, “and then I disappear.  I am here, but no one sees me.”

“No one sees you?” Mma Bogwasi laughs again.  “More like you can’t see nobody.  The kudu doesn’t graze in peace just because it doesn’t see the lion hunting it.”

She’s tickled, like she thinks she’s taught me something I don’t already know.  But I am eleven and I’ve learned many secrets that nobody thinks I can know, like how people turn their faces when speaking: the dominant elder facing the listener, the dutiful listener facing the ground.  I turn my face to Mma Bogwasi now, showing that it is my turn to be listened to.  “I know all about my curse,” I say.  “My sister is having her baby and Mama doesn’t want me to hold him because she says I might trip over something and drop him.  She doesn’t see what I can do.  I carry the water every day without spilling a drop, but Mama still doesn’t see me.”

Mma Bogwasi sighs.  “Well, that sister of yours isn’t having a baby just yet.  I came up here from your Mama’s house.  That girl just wants some attention is all, imagining contractions.  I tell you, everyone in the village is restless today.  It’s this heat.”

Not the heat, I think.  The broken TV.

When Mma Bogwasi leaves, I stay seated in the kgotla, the heart of the village, and listen to its rhythm.  I’ve learned that hot days are best for sitting still and listening.  Our neighbor rides by on his donkey and the smell of grass and manure tickles my nose.  Young children shout in play.  Dogs quarrel.  I hear my mother scolding my younger brother.  Someone crushes aluminum cans.  Dried reeds whisper in deft, weather-worn hands.  Skirts sigh against bare legs.  A distant hippo bellows.

The village is restless, yes.  But alive.


The next morning, everyone gathers in the kgotla.  I sit in the sand with the other children, but it is difficult to sit still.  I am anxious to know what will happen in the trial.  Chief Tshepo opens the meeting with ceremony and gravity.  No one is laughing in the kgotla today.  A fly lands on my neck again and again and I swat at it.  Mama toes me in the back to be still.  This makes me happy.  I am not entirely invisible today.  Not yet.  But when the village chief demands a confession, I feel myself start to disappear again.  I know that Chief Tshepo’s eyes are searching the crowd for the culprit.  But he will never find me.  He will not see me because he does not think that a blind child can hit their mark with a throwing stone.  No one here knows how I practiced for days, out in the yard by the motshaba trees.  I collected rocks and hung the water bucket as high as I could from a branch, then counted my paces back from the tree—the same width of the community hall.  No one heard the ringing of the pail when I began to score.  They were all huddled inside, listening to far off strangers gossip.  I raised my arms to the cheering sun and quietly shouted, “Goooooal…”

“Do you think God will favor you if you keep quiet?” Chief Tshepo bellows.  “You think your stomach will not sour when you next taste water, from holding your guilt inside?”

My sister groans suddenly.  The women around her murmur.

I hear Chief Tshepo stand suddenly, and I know his muscles must be taught like a predator’s, his dangerous energy rippling through the kgotla.  “Do you think you will be safe in childbirth?  That your son or daughter will not be made helpless with blindness when it is born, like Foufetse?”

“Enough of this,” Mma Bogwasi cries, the only woman bold enough to interrupt.  “Her contractions are real enough this time.  She needs to be brought back inside the house.”

There is a shuffle of hands and feet.  My sister cries out again.  She has stolen the show and now the trial must be put on hold.  Around me, the village is stirring, murmuring, my sister’s name on their lips.  I sense fear in their movements.  I hear their heads turning every which way, looking, looking.  But they are all blind.  They are now the nervous kudu antelope who do not see the lion in their very midst.  None of them can see what is so obvious… my sweating palms and my shaking knees as I stand and step into the center of the circle.  How bad can it be, I wonder, to be shunned if you’re already unseen?

I speak in a loud, high voice that stills the kgotla.  “It was I, Foufetse.  The so-called helpless child.  I threw the stone, and it was I who broke the TV.”

Now there is nothing to hear.  Only the shiver of the acacia leaves.  But I can feel it.  The entire village… everyone is looking at me.

And I smile.  I am no longer invisible.

Bethany Nuckolls is an educator, world traveler, and writer based in Charlotte, NC where she lives with her bestie and two huggable plush sharks.


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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Fiction, Guest Posts


December 26, 2023

Missy caught the firefly in mid-air, cupping her hands around it to form a tiny, dark cave. She could feel the insect’s delicate footsteps tickling her skin as it wandered across her palm, searching for a way out.

“Got you!” she whispered, victorious.

It was almost dark. The sunset was nothing but a burnt orange smear on the horizon. Usually, her backyard would be a brilliant starscape of twinkling golden lights at this hour. But tonight, there was just one lonely firefly hovering around the garden.

Missy lifted her hands to her face and opened them just enough to peek inside. A soft yellow glow spilled out, reflecting in her pupil like an ember.

“Hey, there,” she said. “How come you’re all by yourself? Are you lost?”

The light brightened, then dimmed.

Missy looked around her yard for something she could use to hold the firefly. A jar, maybe, or a glass that she could turn upside down on the table. Something she could keep her newfound friend in so that it wouldn’t fly away. She wanted to show it to her sister, Helena. She had to.

Helena was sick. She wore a silk scarf with an elaborate pattern of colorful swirls wound around her head and had a special plastic band on her wrist that told the doctors what medicine she could take. She had been in the hospital for a long time, but the doctors finally sent her home to rest. Once a day, a nurse came in to check on her. No more doctors, though. She didn’t need them anymore.

Missy wasn’t allowed in Helena’s room. It was too full of tubes and wires, and machines that hissed and beeped all night. Missy snuck in anyway. She would bring in flowers, or pretty speckled rocks, or whatever objects she could find that might brighten her sister’s day. She would leave them on the nightstand for her to find when she woke. If she woke. Sometimes, she slept all day.

Missy glanced over her shoulder at her house. The whole place was dark except for her sister’s room. Missy could see her mother inside, framed in the bright light of the window. Her face was in her hands. Her shoulders rose and fell in sorrowful waves.

Missy heard the back screen door squeak open. Her father’s face appeared in the dim circle of illumination cast by the porch light. His cheeks glistened.

“Missy? We need you to come in now, okay? We –” His voice hitched in his throat. “We need to talk.”

“Okay, Dad!” Missy called. “One second!”

The screen door squealed shut.

Missy opened her hand and looked at the firefly.

“You can go,” she said quietly. “I won’t keep you.”

The firefly walked to the tip of her finger and perched there for a moment as if considering whether to fly away. Its glow pulsed once in silent farewell.

Then it took flight, rising skyward until its light became one with the moon.

*This piece was originally published in 2020 on Furious Fiction.

Warren Benedetto writes dark fiction about horrible people, horrible places, and horrible things. He is an award-winning author and a full member of the SFWA. His stories have appeared in publications such as Dark Matter Magazine, The Dread Machine, and Haven Spec; on podcasts such as The NoSleep Podcast, Tales to Terrify, and The Creepy Podcast; and in anthologies from Apex Magazine, Scare Street, Eerie River Publishing, and more. He also works in the video game industry, where he holds 35+ game technology patents. For more information, visit and follow @warrenbenedetto on Twitter and Instagram.


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Designed to transform your creativity from stuck and frustrated to unblocked and an endless source of inspiration, for any creative journey you can dream of.

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Fiction


December 10, 2023
car mph

The white car pulls up super close behind me at the light. Kind of a shit car, but hey, this ain’t utopia, we can’t all have fuel cell electric vehicles. It’s California. But in my California, cars space out at lights, often leaving room for a whole nother car between them, like they’re waiting in line at the doctor’s office or the bank and don’t want to intrude on, overhear the private details of whatever condition, slow burning contagion, almost negative balance, or end-of-life indicating pain in the side that has brought them to this crossroads. This guy must think he’s immortal. The driver’s head doesn’t move. What’s his problem? It’s a long light, no use in fighting it.

I open my window, smell cinnamon rolls on the breeze. A crow lands on a power line, inspecting us. There’s a lemon tree by the side of the road. Meyer lemon. The lemons, they look like breasts, they look like testacles, they look like grenades. The light changes. I power the window closed. Two lanes feeding the 101 ease to the left and down the highway entrance ramp. I’m in the right lane on a gradual acceleration. The white car doesn’t pass but stays locked on my bumper.

He’ll get bored with this game. Must be on his phone. Jackass. Maybe girl trouble or something. Or just trusting me not to run into something, keeping an eye on my bumper. Whatever. Yeah, probably girl or boy trouble. Lover trouble. Is it, the thrill is gone or raw jealousy? Poor guy either way. Like is it better to be settled and bored, or in-play and enraged by paranoid visions of infidelity? Apathetic or angry? Coward or paranoid? I’d like to think I don’t know which I am, that by intellectualizing it I can abstract myself from participating in this bullshit.

Still there. 45 mph and climbing. Could it be a woman, driving like that? But I can’t see him– them. It’s a basic white Kia with dark windows. Looks like they’ve got their seat reclined to full blowjob, ball cap on backwards, eyes just over the top of the steering wheel like a kid, like they’re in a swimming pool, raft deflated, or sitting in dad’s lap getting that first driving lesson. How big the steering wheel seemed.

I look ahead. 58 mph. Merge. Hit play. Tune them out. 60 mph now.

It’s a podcast called The 101 on the T-72. The T-72 is a Soviet Era tank still in use by the Russian Army, designed to be light and fast with an autoloader for the big artillery shells in the gun turret. It only takes three men to operate, where American tanks need four– the fourth guy loads the shells– no autoloader in an American tank. Slow American tanks.

I’m at 64 mph. I turn on the adaptive cruise control. Three lanes southbound through rolling brown hills. Other lanes passing. I’m taking my time. Is the moon stealing glances at us through the scattered clouds, or just appearing in the gaps like a zoned-out commuter in a bus window? The California sun heads for Hawaii.

I’ll probably catch the big truck in my lane in a couple of minutes and then draft behind the trailer, cutting my wind resistance, saving more fuel. Mindful driver. Slow exhale. I’d take the bus if it didn’t take three times as long.

The cabin fills with the smell of skunk. I swerve to miss the mangled corpse. Jackass hits it. I don’t know if I’m more annoyed by the lack of compassion, or the lack of self respect.

In the T-72, the autoloader holds the artillery shells in a big ring around the base of the turret. It’s like there’s a hoola-hoop sized necklace of explosives around the gunner’s neck. Talk about going commando, the shells are not separated from the crew by an armored locker like in US and German tanks. These boys have it all out in the open. If one of their own shells is hit when an enemy shot penetrates the Soviet era armor, the shell goes off inside the tank, inside the cabin where the three men are about to say whatever Russians say when they say Shit but don’t get a chance to because all of the shells go off and blow the turret off the top of the T-72. The Ukranians call it the Jack-in-the-Box.

The podcast says the burnout from all of the shells igniting basically vaporizes the Russian crew. Lots of Instagram posts of decapitated, burned out tanks these days. What does it feel like to vaporize someone? Can someone care that much, hate that much, that they could do that to another person with such passion and self-righteousness? Or do they even feel? What is the point of stealing land, of dominating local populations?

I’ve gotta wonder how many of these Russian soldiers are apathetic and would be just as happy to play chess, or drink vodka with their passionate Ukrainian peers instead of becoming steam and smoke and driving up the cost of gas in the world. Do they even know what’s going on? Is being a soldier just a job?

I check the mirror. Still there. My heart hits a bump and another and I put my hand on my chest and then it steadies. I’m not going to let this get to me. Maybe we should just have a vodka and a game of chess. Hah. We can talk about our romantic woes, or basketball, or some universal bullshit like that.

This guy, (it’s gotta be a guy, right?) doesn’t even know me. They can pass. I see the line of their eyes like they’re a tank driver looking through the “vision block,” the small rectangular window at the front of a tank. No mirrors, very little peripheral vision. What’s right in front of them. The target.

When you can control what’s in front of someone, you can control what they think about. It’s like that tank window is designed not to let your mind stray. The generals don’t want any sudden rushes of compassion. I wonder if there are women generals, women tank drivers in the Soviet army. I mean Russian. Are they measurably more or less compassionate than their male counterparts? Someone should do a study.

They pull out, come up next to me, pace me.

Don’t look over, I tell myself. Don’t look over. Pretend not to notice. Goddamn I’m getting sick of this jerk and their jealous rages! Take it out on someone else you fuck!

I flip the bird at the inside of my car door. Yeah, I wave it, wag it, and make that chicken sphincter grimace that says I really mean it. Adrenaline rush!

Then a sudden urge to side swipe, knock them into the next lane! He swipes me back and then I pin the Kia to the cement median, sparks and metal scraping, oh the movies in my head right now. My lips have moved from chicken sphincter to hissing cat, teeth bared and I’m elevated, elated, superhuman, so high on this feeling that I could slam into him. Do it! I look over, poised.

But there’s nothing to see through the blackout film of their passenger window. They probably didn’t hear me either. We’re all isolated in our steel and glass cocoons. I halfway wish it was just some miserable fuck in a Dodge Ram, who’d see me see him, flip me off vigoursly in return through the passenger window, mouthing the predictable prayers for my downfall, and leave me in a cloud of diesel soot. But this guy, I can’t even see. I don’t know what this is about. Why do I make up their story? What if there’s a kid in the back? God that would be a buzz-kill.

I slow down. Who cares. Let them pass. They do. Thank you Lord.

The podcast is saying that the Russian Army views its soldiers more collectively, as disposable when there’s a tactical advantage. Their tanks are faster, lighter, and they fire faster too. But at what cost? On some level you’ve gotta respect the warrior mentality that designed those tanks though. I mean, I’m basically a pacifist, but if you’re gonna invade, go all in. If your tank can shoot faster, roar across a field faster, it’s worth losing a few men in the short run. Not that that’s what’s happening in Ukraine. What are those guys thinking? Babies are dying, it goes without saying.

I’ve come to the narrows where the hills rise to a road cut at the border between two counties and the 101 drops to two lanes each direction. I merge over. The narrows condense and slow traffic as the hill climbs to the saddle. It’s where the worst jams happen. Funny to think of a tank in a traffic jam. Outta my way mothafuckas!

I pass, suspended from a green pole, a bell, a rusty bell. People used to walk this road. Ride horses. Herd cattle. It’s an old waypoint on the El Camino Real, and a reminder of the Mission era. Has our culture settled on these reminders, out of apathy, the way a person settles on a partner, or the way an invader settles the land? We embrace our aggressions, we make a culture of them. We know we are right, better than, entitled to.

Eventually people choose what’s in front of them in partnerships or in picking fights or invading a country. Because I can see you, I have a right to you and to your things. Settling is really kind of unsettling. Ring the bell. Cross the border. Get in someone’s face.

There are people who love these bells up and down California and there are people who don’t, and they’re at one another’s throats, the settlers and those who didn’t particularly want to be settled, and then there are those who are tired of thinking about it and just enjoy a fight. Do they justify their apathy by baiting the people who give a fuck?

I look at the speedometer and the car’s down to 58, but we’re still moving.



It’s the white Kia, in front of me now. Still there. Slowing without hitting the brakes. I lock my eyes on their back window. They’re just gradually easing off the gas, no one in front of them, and my car’s adaptive cruise control slowing me down, keeping me a safe following distance away. 56 mph. 54 mph. Everybody’s passing us in the left lane now.

55 was the national speed limit for a while. We saved a lot of gas by driving slower. And lives. Babies in back seats were saved, I remind myself. I’m in no rush. 53 mph. Say it again, I’m in no rush. I’m in no rush.

52 mph.

This fucker’s obsessed. I hope he hasn’t bred, the world doesn’t need his spawn.

The weird thing is that the Ukrainians have similar tanks from the Soviet era, but they don’t seem to be having the same trouble. That’s gotta piss off the Russians.

Do they expect me to tailgate them? That shit car probably doesn’t even have adaptive cruise control, or anti-lock brakes. I wonder if it even has airbags.

The Russians have lost more than 500 tanks in the invasion, Zelensky says more than 1000. Whatever the number, the Ukrainians have learned how to hit the T-72’s in their weak spot.

I’ve had it with this bullshit.

I watch the passing traffic for an opening, pull out, floor it: 60, 65, 70, 75

They’re speeding up too, staying ahead of me, not letting me pass. They cut me off but I swerve and go around them to the right, get past them.

I’m not saving gas anymore, I’m flying. 76, 77, 79 mph. I wonder how fast a T-72 can go. I’ll just burn like this for a while I tell myself, like everyone else, and leave old Jackass behind.

After a few minutes, we come out of the narrows. The road widens. I keep to the right lane and slow to 65, resetting the cruise control. I take a deep breath. A few cars pass and then the white car swerves right in front of me, breaking hard enough that a big red collision warning message lights up on my dashboard. It says BRAKE! I hit the brakes but ride their bumper, staying close now, they’re signaling for the exit ramp that’s right there. We’re close enough to be parallel parked at highway speeds.

I get this vision of myself from above as my cartoon rage head pops up through the sunroof like a jack-in-the-box, spinning eyes the size of grapefruits and a big drooly grin on my bobble-headed face.

I’m fully locked on. I’m all rage, and it feels freeing. What bliss to think about nothing else but this clear unambiguous purpose. I’m looking at their tail lights through a tank’s vision block. We go down the ramp and they lock their brakes in the shoulder gravel, sliding to a stop.

Even as I’m still rolling, I see myself opening the door, going to the trunk to pull out my softball bat. I hear the whoosh and crack of bones, the melony cartoon sounds of wood on head. I slide to a stop right behind them on the shoulder of the exit ramp, shift to park, hover my hand over the button to unlock the trunk, set the fantasy in motion. Their brake lights are still on, red as evil.

The podcast is describing the anonymity of much of the war, how the soldiers rarely ever see the enemy thanks to precision guided technology… I shut off my car and pop the trunk.

I climb out of the car and go for the bat. It’s like I’m a new man, twenty years younger, freed of the hesitancy, failures, ambiguities of experience. I.AM.CLEARLY.IN.THE.RIGHT.

Standing I can see the sunroof of the Kia is open– there’s a high-pitched buzzing sound and then a drone flies up and comes right at me. I swing and it feints, I miss. It comes at me again. What’s it gonna do with those tiny propellers, cut my hair? This time I connect, I can feel the heft of the battery pack bouncing off the bat as it tumbles through the air and flops in those scrubby roadside weeds that smell like licorice, the motors pulsing out a couple gasping spins before they die.

I stomp over to it and give it a couple of gratuitous whacks, then turn back and there’s a hand holding a cell phone through the sunroof, aimed at me. I assume the victory pose and let out a mighty roar, bat held high like one of those chimps with a bone at the beginning of 2001 A Space Odyssey.

Then the hand retracts, the brake lights go out, the front wheels spin in the gravel and the car launches itself down the exit ramp, running the stop sign and back up the entrance ramp onto the 101. All so fast, I’m still holding the bat in the air. What the actual fuck?

I get back in the car and just rest my forehead on the steering wheel for a while before driving on.

About a week later I get a text from a friend with a Twitter link– is this you?! It’s an anonymous account. There’s video of a middle aged guy bashing and bashing and bashing the dirt with a bat for like a full thirty seconds, then he’s doing the victory pose, and he’s got an ape face superimposed on him.

I text back, Ha Ha that can’t be me.

Jack Derby is just back from his first trip to the southern hemisphere and he’s kicking himself for not looking at the night sky, especially after David Crosby just died, because, you know, the “Southern Cross”. He did look at the stars at Bread Loaf, at Sewanee, and after class during his MFA at the University of San Francisco. Derby’s short film “Wishbone” received best short comedy and best actress in a short film at the Oregon Independent Film Festival. His most recent poem was in Zyzzyva, most recent book review in Kenyon Review Online.


Our friends at Circe have launched an anti-advice column and it is fire!


Find details on how to ask Gina and Emily for advice and let us know what you think!


Looking to jumpstart your writing? Need to reignite your creativity? 

Paulina Pinsky has reopened enrollment for her year-long The Artist’s Way course.

Designed to transform your creativity from stuck and frustrated to unblocked and an endless source of inspiration, for any creative journey you can dream of.

Click below for more information and let Paulina know we sent you!



Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Fiction


November 29, 2023

Amir pulled his taxi into the circular driveway and idled the engine. He liked to pick up fares at the King David hotel on Saturday evenings, when the American tourists, anxious to get to the airport to catch overnight flights to New York, had no interest in making pointless conversation with the taxi driver. The King David was still the classiest hotel in Jerusalem, in Amir’s opinion, and the guests were the most generous tippers.

But he was picky. Amir avoided the religious families. The heavy suitcases bursting and tied up with cord, the men holding round hat boxes on their laps, the women exhausted and cranky, the children–four, five, six of them–dressed in matching outfits, fingers sticky with candy, eyes heavy with sleep. He had nothing against religion or children. Amir had grown up with a heavy dose of traditional Judaism that stuck to his bones, and he adored his pious father. He and his wife Tamar had married off three daughters, only the youngest boy, Yonatan, still at home eating his mother’s food and challenging his grandfather’s old-fashioned ideas. What Amir couldn’t handle was the crying and the bickering in the enclosed space of his car. Give him a business traveler in pressed khakis and a button down shirt, briefcase in one hand and garment bag in the other. No hassles.

Still, it was illegal, or bad form at the least, to choose which passengers to pick up. For that, Amir relied on Udi, a cop and old army buddy, who worked security at the hotel when off-duty. Udi was a bouncer with a gun, throwing his substantial heft around without the benefit of superior intelligence or strategic purpose. Early in their service, Amir had saved Udi’s ass during a combat training exercise, and he never forgot. Udi couldn’t repay him, but on the nights he worked at the hotel he steered the uncomplicated travelers to Amir.
Amir drove toward the front entrance where a casually dressed man and a woman stood close together, heads bowed and typing on their cell phones. One piece of soft-sided luggage each at their feet. Amir wouldn’t need Udi tonight. If he was lucky, they’d be on their emails all the way to Ben Gurion.

As Amir pulled closer, he saw a woman standing off to one side under the lights. She might have been fifty as easily as thirty; tall with remarkable posture, her flimsy yellow dress loose on her willowy frame. She had her arms wrapped around herself as though she were cold, although the approaching sunset hadn’t put a dent in the heat of the sweltering August day. Her hair hung down long and straight over her shoulders and the color reminded Amir of wet sand on the beach in Netanya where he’d grown up. As he drove past her, Amir felt the woman’s gaze fixed on him. In the headlights he imagined that her eyes were the color of sea-glass.
Hitting the brakes, he reversed slowly. A taxi driver behind him leaned on his horn, and Amir opened his window and gestured for the car to go around him. The driver picked up the cell phone couple. Amir put the car in park and got out.

Up close, the woman looked less fragile. “Where are you headed?”

“To the airport.”

Amir popped the trunk and picked up the woman’s suitcase. Her arms weren’t wrapped around herself as Amir had initially thought. She was holding a briefcase tightly against her chest. When he reached for it, she took a step back.

“I will hold on to this one.”

Amir shrugged. “Up to you.” Her English was more fluid than his own, but he couldn’t place the accent.

“Where are you from?” he asked, when she was settled in the back seat.


“I’ve never been.” He didn’t say so, but the truth was, Amir had never been anywhere that his taxi couldn’t take him. Or his tank, in years gone by.

They rode in silence for a few minutes, Amir looking at his passenger in the rear view mirror as much as safe driving would allow. She’d strapped the briefcase in with the seatbelt beside her, although she’d left herself unbuckled.

“Have you been in Israel long?” He wondered at his own curiosity. What did it matter? In a moment she’d be gone.

“Two weeks.”

“What did you think?” Amir slammed on the brakes and hit the horn as a red Mazda shot out in front of him, cutting him off.

“I think Israeli drivers are crazy.”

Amir chuckled. “Driving here is like being back in combat.”

She nodded, momentarily locking eyes with him in the mirror. “Which was your war?”

Amir slowed the cab. The question startled him. The phrasing and the tone mimicked the way Israelis asked each other about the horrors seen by innocent eyes, the nation’s young soldiers always on the front lines of a conflict or war. It was an offhand question that got to the guts of the collective experience of the country, the bravado a scant cover for the trauma that lay just beneath the surface. It wasn’t a question asked by outsiders fom Antwerp.

Still, he answered her. “Yom Kippur.”

Her voice was smooth and musical, beguiling. “Sometimes it’s easier to speak about such things with a stranger.” How did she know that he didn’t talk about those experiences, not even with his own children when he saw them off to their own wars?

Amir strained to keep his eyes trained on the road, grateful that there wasn’t much traffic. When the woman spoke again, she took a different tack.

“Where are you from?”

“Here. Where else?”

“Somewhere before.”

“Why do you think so? I told you, I was a soldier in 1973. I was eighteen then. I was born in Jerusalem, in 1955.”

It had started to rain. The woman turned her face to look out the window as Amir flipped on the windshield wipers. The swishing sound filled the silent space between them, obscuring the pointless lie he had told. He could feel the woman would bide her time until he answered her question truthfully, holding her peace until they reached the airport if necessary. Amir felt a pressure in his throat, a choking sensation, the words he tried to suppress bubbling up into his mouth.

“My father was born in Iran in 1930 into one of the wealthiest families in the country. They were in textiles, with factories, warehouses, a fleet of trucks for distribution. In January, 1955, my father was a young man, ready to learn the business and enjoy the family’s wealth. My mother was pregnant with me, but they didn’t know it yet.”

“How fortunate for your parents.” She leaned forward a bit in the back seat, flirtatious, no longer a middle-aged woman, but a teenage girl. Amir glimpsed her collarbone at the neckline of her yellow dress, could imagine her breasts. He focused on the road as he spoke.

“Not so fortunate. Soon after I was born, my father became very sick with excruciating headaches that no painkiller made better. Because they had money, my grandparents were able to send him abroad to Europe to receive treatment. He had to leave my pregnant mother behind. He was gone for nearly a year, missed my entry into the world. By the time he had regained his health and was ready to go back to Iran, the government had taken pretty much everything his parents had.”

Amir tried to catch her eyes in the rearview mirror, to see if his earlier lie about where he was born had registered, but she was looking out her window. The rain had picked up into a downpour.

“It doesn’t rain here in this season,” Amir said. “It doesn’t rain until after the festival of Sukkot.”

“Apparently it does.” The rain was so loud on the rooftop that Amir could hardly hear her. The strangeness of the weather frightened him. He wanted to drive faster, to drop her off, to go home to Tamar. But the highway was slick and it was getting dark. And the woman had a plane to catch.

Amir gripped the steering wheel and tried to keep his hands from shaking. When the woman implored him to continue his story, he felt powerless to resist.

“Through their connections, my father was able to arrange for my mother and me to come to Israel; he met us soon after. We had nothing. My father dreamed of starting a new textile business and regaining his wealth. Meanwhile, he learned a trade. He became a locksmith.”

Amir felt a surge of anger run through him at his father’s humiliation, the way he’d run at the beck and call of a housewife who’d left a pot on the stove in the kitchen and her keys inside when she stepped out, the door locking behind her. But as quickly as the anger came, it passed. His father hadn’t been humiliated. He’d been humble and grateful. “My father worked hard. He took care of his family. He maintained his traditions.”

“And what did you dream for your life?”

“I wanted to go to University to study literature.” Amir smiled. It seemed so far away and so absurd now. He gestured toward his taxi. “This is my meanwhile.”

The rain had petered out, and they were quiet as they approached the airport. Amir pulled up behind the line of taxis and opened the door for the woman before taking her suitcase out of the trunk. He had the sensation that he needed to tell her something more, to offer her something she could take with her back to Antwerp that would mark their unlikely connection. But he had nothing in the car except the second half of the egg salad sandwich Tamar had made him for his dinner.

“Well,” Amir said, “I wish you a safe trip home. Maybe you will visit our little country again sometime.”

She took a step toward him. She kissed her fingertips and then pressed them softly onto Amir’s chest, over his heart. Then she turned and walked away. By the time he realized she hadn’t paid the fare, she’d already disappeared into the terminal.

Amir sat down in the driver’s seat and waited for his head to clear. He turned to take a look in the backseat, wondering if he could conjure the woman for just a few more moments. Instead, he saw the briefcase, buckled in safely.

“Damn it!”

Amir parked the car in the lot and ran over to the terminal, the briefcase knocking against his leg as we went. The line to check in snaked back and forth, hundreds of passengers waiting. It had been less than ten minutes, but the woman was nowhere to be seen. He sat down on a bench near the entrance to examine the briefcase. It was locked, and there was no identification on the outside. He shook it gently and heard only a muted shuffling.

Trudging back to his car, Amir alternated between cursing the woman and touching the spot she had kissed with her fingers. He placed the briefcase carefully in the front passenger seat and buckled it in as she had. Then he drove home, giving up on the rest of his shift.

When he arrived at the apartment hours ahead of schedule, Tamar fretted.

“Your son is growing like a weed. He needs new clothes all the time, and eats more than all three of the girls combined. How can you come home at 8 p.m.?”

“Relax, Tamar. It’s just a few hours of lost fares. Have we ever gone without?” Then he told her about the woman, leaving out the kiss to his heart and the feeling of longing he’d had in her presence. Amir showed Tamar the briefcase.

“Well, open it. Maybe her name is written on something inside. What are you waiting for?”

“It’s locked.”

“And your father is a locksmith. You know how to open a cheap lock on a cheap briefcase.” Tamar went to the silverware drawer. ‘What do you need? A knife?”

Amir hesitated, but Tamar was insistent. “A paper clip and maybe a screwdriver.” His hands were shaking again like they had in the car.

In a few minutes he had the briefcase open.

They both stood back from the table, mesmerized by the neat bundles of bills tied with rubber bands. When he could tear his eyes away, Amir slammed down the cover of the briefcase.

Tamar drifted over to a kitchen chair and sat down heavily. “How much do you think is in there?”

“I don’t know. A lot. But it isn’t ours. And keep your voice down please. You’ll wake my father.”

“Then whose is it? You found it! We’re barely getting by. God gave you this reward for your hard work.”
Amir picked up his car keys. “I don’t know that God was involved here, Tamari.”

She got to her feet and stood between her husband and the door leading from the kitchen to the front hallway. “Where are you going?”

Amir sidestepped her and left the apartment, Tamar’s voice still ringing in his ears.


When he reached the police station, Udi was manning the intake desk.

“Brother! What’s happening?” He came around the desk and slapped Amir on the back. “You missed me at the hotel so much you came here to visit?”

Amir put the briefcase on the counter between them. “I wish you had been at the hotel. You could have saved me a whole mess of trouble.”

“What are you talking about? What is this?” Udi ran his fingers over the leather briefcase. “This is classy stuff. Whose is it?”

“A woman I took to the airport left it in my car. Buckled into the back seat. Open it. Don’t worry, it won’t explode.”

Udi opened the briefcase. His eyes grew wide and he whistled through his teeth. “Wow, wow, wow,” he said, under his breath. Then he looked around the room and closed the briefcase. “Get out, Amir. Take this and go.”

“What are you, crazy? You’re supposed to be the law, Udi.”

“First, I’m your friend. This is enough money to change your life forever. You can buy the children houses, get Tamar fancy jewelry, go and study your precious literature. And we’ll be even. You don’t know who this woman is, and she’s never going to be able to find you.” He closed his eyes as if deep in thought. “Maybe she meant it as a tip for your wonderful driving.”

“Listen, I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but I don’t want anything to do with this woman or her money.” If Udi noticed him blush, he didn’t say anything.

Udi picked up the briefcase and took several steps toward the back of the station house. “Ok, ok. I know when you get your head set on something, you don’t change your mind. Go home to your wife and family.”


When Amir walked through the door, Tamar was waiting, her eyes teary. “Your father has taken a turn,” she whispered.

Yonatan was sitting by his grandfather’s bedside, holding his hand.

“Abba!” Yonatan yelled to Amir.

“Abba!” Amir yelled to his father.

It was too late.


On the last day of the shiva, Tamar approached Amir where he sat with his childhood friends in the living room, reminiscing.

“Do you remember the time your old man helped me break into the school after hours because I left my textbook inside and I had a big test the next day?” Shlomo laughed, patting Amir’s knee. “He was a wizard at locks. A genius.”

“You’re full of it. He was as honest as the day is long.” But Amir knew the story was true. His father could always be counted on to help.

“Amir,” Tamar interrupted. “Udi is here,” she said.

Amir shrugged. “Nu? He’s come to give his condolences. Just under the wire. Tell him to come in.”

“I don’t know. Please, come to the kitchen. He’s waiting for you.”

Amir got up slowly from his low chair, his legs stiff and aching. From the hallway he could see Udi’s broad shoulders as they filled the doorway. He thought to retreat to the living room where his friends continued to share memories about his father. But when he turned, Tamar was behind him. “Go.”

Udi wasted no time handing Amir the briefcase. “It’s been a week. No one has come to inquire or to claim this. I won’t hold it for you any longer.”

“Don’t you have a word of consolation for me?” Amir pleaded.

“I’m sorry for your loss, Amiri.” Udi put his hand on Amir’s shoulder. “Now go fulfill your dreams and your father’s too.”


Amir sank down into the cushions of the chair in the hotel lounge. What had Tamar called such a chair recently? A chair and a half. She’d ordered two for the salon in her and Yonatan’s new apartment that looked out on the Old City, just a stone’s throw away from where he sat now at the bar in the King David hotel. Tamar seemed determined to spend the money on everything and nothing.

He threw back a scotch, his third. He signaled to the waiter.

“Come, have a drink with me,” Amir called out. His voice was louder than he realized, and a couple at the next table looked up from their lunch.

The waiter looked down at him. “I’m working, sir. Anyway, it’s early.”

“If you won’t join me, I’ll have a double for both of us.” The waiter walked back to the bar to fill the order.

Amir hung his head. “This morning I said the Kaddish prayer for my father for the last time,” he said, to no one in particular. “Eleven months of mourning. And in that time, I’ve managed not only to lose him, but everything that was important to us both.”

The waiter had returned with Udi by his side.

“You called security on me?” Amir asked, his voice filled with shame.

“You’re drunk, my friend.” Amir could hear the disgust in Udi’s voice and he reveled in it.

The flash of a yellow dress in his peripheral vision and Amir rose on unsteady legs, lurching toward the kitchen.

“That’s her! That’s the woman!”

“What woman?” Udi said, following close on Amir’s heels.

“The one who left the briefcase. The one who destroyed my life.”

“That’s Karla. She works in the kitchen. She didn’t leave you a fortune to throw away.”

But when Amir caught up to her, he grabbed her arm and pulled her toward him. His skin tingled where it met hers and her sea glass eyes flashed in anger.

“Why?” Amir cried, as Udi stepped between them to separate them. “Why did you do it?”

The woman swayed and shimmered. Amir lunged for the woman as she faded, cracking his head on the swinging door that led into the hotel’s kitchen. Udi caught him as he fell to the ground and laid his body down, feet toward the door.

Reyna Marder Gentin is a recovering criminal defense attorney and novelist. She lives with her husband in New York. You can find out more at


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Guest Posts, Fiction


November 26, 2023

The afternoon I returned home from taking Paul to college, I stepped out of the car and stretched my creaking limbs with a groan. After seven hours of travelling, I felt at least a hundred and six years old, and even though Paul had done the driving up to school, we had been crammed into the front seat with the entirety of his belongings filling up the rest of the car, leaving not a molecule of daylight. I took stock of the dry grass, and hesitated before climbing the three stairs to the front door. There was a stranger in the house – Paul’s absence – and I was not yet ready to confront it. To my left, I saw what appeared to be a pile of mud on the ground in front of the kitchen window. Late August heat seared my bare shoulders as I walked across the strip of lawn to investigate. Sunscreen had been the last thing on my mind at 6 am that morning, as I packed my son, with his bedding, photographs, and a garbage bag full of sneakers, into my car to move him away from home forever.

Year after year, robins built their nest in the juniper tree which stood dead center in front of the house, and which was growing so tall it seemed to bisect the structure into two distinct halves. When I went downstairs each morning to start my coffee, and the kitchen window had been left open overnight, I startled the birds and they in turn startled me with a flapping noise that was always unsettling for a moment, so close was it to my ears.

I did not remember the night before as distinctly windy, though I had lain awake, trying not to focus on the enormity of the day ahead. My boy was leaving for college. He’s ready, and so am I. In two more years, it would be Kelly’s turn. I needed to wake up in six hours, now four, now two. But at some point, something had unmoored the nest from its perch, and there it was, flipped onto the strip of lawn, slightly flattened due to its tumble to earth. Shards of eggshell were scattered in a small radius on the undergrowth but one unscathed egg sat close by in sky-blue perfection, balanced on a myrtle leaf. I turned over the nest, whose center basket retained its curve, and patted down the grass and mud on the underside. I put the egg inside, and rested the whole apparatus on the top step by the door, in the corner.

I regarded this archaeological finding as more than a little absurd, and laughed out loud. It could be that the fallen nest had been there for weeks but in the last month, I had barely looked up, so focused was I on getting Paul ready, on my new responsibilities at the hospital, and on Kelly’s breakup with the wealthy boy from Ames. There was no way of knowing; some signs can only be read by the willing.

During the year that my husband Dan thought about leaving me, and then finally did, the disturbance honed my senses and I became superstitious. Not about ladders or black cats, although I did avoid the panther cage when I accompanied Paul’s sixth grade class to the zoo.  Rather, I assigned power to whatever was littered in my path, as if my surroundings offered a puzzle of encoded messages, and none of the pieces could be ignored.

I believed that a dried leaf that floated around my feet nudged me with a message (decay is also beautiful?), or that my grandmother’s topaz that sat in my jewelry case suddenly caught the light and my eye, with ancestral wisdom I had to decipher.  I began to collect charms which I wore on a chain around my neck. A seahorse, which only swims forward; a sun, which glows behind rainclouds, the cross from my baptism, to remind me of the child I had once been. But despite my attempts at sorcery, soon Dan moved in with Laura, a grad student in town, whom he loved as much as he had loved me when I, too, was twenty six. The talismans that dangled around my neck seemed like pathetic attempts at optimism. So, I removed them, and everything became what they had been before: A dead leaf, a rock in a box, a bunch of gold charms.

My son had been gone for exactly eight hours but my house was already changed. The emptiness consumed the quiet rooms, which seemed to honor Paul’s departure by manifesting a respectful stillness. Baxter, our mutt, did not spring up to me in his usual way, but rather took his time, loped towards me, not wanting to seem too cheerful in case I was in a state of full-on despair.  I slipped the sandals off my feet and joined him on the kitchen floor.

“Bax, Bax, Bax,” I said. “You okay, boy? ‘Cos I am.”

I ran my fingers along his neck and curved around, scratching vigorously around his ears. I had dreaded getting this dog, a blatant attempt to buy my children’s happiness after the divorce. But like any adopted baby, I fell hard for him, and could not imagine life without his good cheer and even keel. It was Baxter who pitched our family into balance, and sometimes I believed he was a better, more capable, and certainly more patient parent than I.

I rested my forearm, and then my head, on his side. “You know, it was time.” I stood up, still stroking his fur.  “You’re getting gray around the edges, my friend,” I said. “Welcome to the club.”

There was a note on the counter from Kelly. Mom, I’m doing the 7-3 today. Tom wants to see me (!!!). Call me! Love, K.

 It pained me to think that after her summer of heartbreak, she would run back to Tom as soon as he beckoned. He was a junior who lived a half an hour away, and he had succumbed, cruelly, to the charms of another girl in June. It had been tortuous for me, as I felt somewhat responsible for their romance in the first place. Tom’s father was an orthopedic surgeon in the hospital where I taught nursing. I had taken Kelly to the university Christmas party last year in lieu of Keith, the man who had been squiring me around but was not much up for the office holiday bash.

She had worn a black camisole dress with rhinestone spaghetti straps, and silver heels she bought online. I marveled at the ease with which my daughter glided across the room, not to mention the salt-covered, ice-slicked parking lot. Tom noticed her, of course, and they got together a few weeks later on New Year’s Eve. I did not care for his father, who still swaggered like the star quarterback, and was known to have skillful hands and an eye for my students, but not much of a healing demeanor. It should not have colored my feelings for the son.

I picked up the phone and dialed Kelly at Bank Street Grill, where she was a waitress. She would be nearing the end of her shift, dead on her feet, wavy hair beginning to unravel from her clip, still smiling at customers.

“Hi sweetie,” I said. “Long day?”

“Totally. We’ve been really busy. Did you get Paul settled?”

“Yes. Alex was there, his roommate. He seems great. They have a kitchen.”

“Are you sad, Mom?”

“Don’t worry about me, Kel. He’s ready and that’s what counts.”

“We’ll see him in a few weeks, right?”

“Very soon. Honey…Tom?”

“I know, I know. But I’m excited.”

“You’ve been great lately.”

“Don’t worry, Mom. Gotta go. I’ll see you in an hour. Love you!”

Don’t worry? I held her like a baby for hours this summer, felt her hair soak my fingertips from the heat and exertion of her sobs.  For days, she had not left the house, despite platoons of ponytailed friends and soccer teammates who came by on bikes and in cars to get her back into the sunshine. Despite my promising her a hundred times that her heart was still whole.  That no boy, or man, or person, could rob her of her soul and that it, too, was intact.

I poured coffee from the pitcher in the refrigerator, splashed in a drop of milk, and grabbed ice cubes from the freezer. Water condensed quickly around the glass and I gripped it as if it could steady me from what might be imminent in Paul’s room. The familiar faces on the wall greeted me. Usain Bolt, the 1998 Bulls. Inside the closet, I gazed at the empty space. I sat on the bed and remembered assembling it from printed instructions, learning the finer points of an Allen key screwdriver, shocking even myself with my ability to do things without Dan.

My brain scanned my body for sadness and regret, but it came back blank. For months, people began to treat Paul’s leaving as if it were his and my simultaneous demise. But I felt great satisfaction at raising a good man. I also felt one step closer to my own release.  My friends and I – parents I’ve known since Paul started kindergarten, from the auction committee and the Little League candy bar drive – all found ourselves in the place that every mother and father does eventually, with kids moving away and for the most part, trying to prove they no longer needed us. It was sad, yes; tragic, no. We had worked hard and prepared them well.  We, too, would be released.

I hesitated and looked blankly around the room. The ceramic mug he made when he was three or four still sat on the desk which was otherwise cleared of his entire schoolboy history.  He had not packed it, and although it did not much surprise me that a college freshman would not be sentimental about a pre-school clay project, I was nevertheless surprised to see it left behind. I had thrown it away once, long ago, after the handle cracked off. Paul had dug it out of the trash, and brandished it before me, shedding angry tears, crying, “This is my CUP!”

I rose to pick it up, felt its smooth painted yellow sides, rough at the broken points, and looked inside. There was a pen cap, some paper clips, a blue cloth patch of some sort and a small bright orange shell. I removed it and wiped off the dust with the pad of my thumb. It was about the size of a nickel, unscarred and whole. A living thing had inhabited this shell in some far-flung sea. Then it floated to shore and was plucked off the sand by a boy. We were landlocked by over a thousand miles, had been to a half dozen beaches over the years, but I had no idea where it came from. I stuck it in my pocket.

I walked out and towards the bedroom, and gazed at the pile of books that sat, ever waiting for me, punishing but welcoming just the same. Now, I might have time for them. I looked up at the shelves stacked high with novels that held not only their own stories but the ancillary ones: where I was in my life on this earth when I read them. There were books from my honeymoon, and ones I had plowed through when I was on bed rest while pregnant with Kelly. Books that I read, or tried to, when I worked overnights as a young nurse, my eyes lacquered with fatigue. Others I had carried through airports, on vacation with the kids.

I picked one up and shuffled quickly through the pages, as if the smell of coffee and black tobacco would float towards me again, as it had while I read it in a cafe in Paris. I took myself there the first summer after our divorce when I had to give up my children to their father for two weeks. I recalled the agony, the bewilderment, the pointlessness of my attempt at escape. The stub of my boarding pass floated to the floor and I retrieved it: Carolyn Schepis, seat 46B. I stuck it back between the pages and as I reshelved the book, I heard the squeak of the front door.

It was Keith, whom I referred to at times as my boyfriend. He had begun to make noises about moving in together but as much as I liked sharing a bed with him when I was in the mood, the idea of committing to his laundry and general caretaking gave me the sensation of a hand gripping my throat. He too was divorced, and we had been together, or something like it, for a year.

“Carolyn?” he called. Always a question.

“Up here Keith,” I replied as I headed for the stairs, still barefoot. Keith stood in the foyer, holding forth a bag that looked like lunch, and when he saw me, he shut the door behind him. As he did, a mass of sticky heat from outdoors lumbered into the house, dissipating quickly in the air conditioning. He was in his coaching clothes, shorts, a gray T-shirt, fresh from pre-season practice with his high school soccer team. His smile betrayed more than a drop of sympathy which I tried to ignore by beaming back to him, widening my eyes gratefully at the appearance of both him, and food.

“I’m just seeing if you’re okay,” he said, wrapping a moist arm around me, and kissing me fully on the lips.

“You’re so sweet.” I continued, “Everyone keeps asking me that. I think I’m not supposed to be.” I looked in the bag. Chips. Good. “But I’m okay.”

“Where’d you find the nest?” Keith asked.

“Out front,” I said.

“Can I at least take you to dinner tonight?” Keith asked. “To celebrate? Or not…”

“Can I let you know?” I replied, grimacing. “I’m pretty tired. Kelly’s getting back together with Tom.”

“She’ll have to learn somehow,” said Keith. “Let me pick you up at 6.”

“Come by at 7. Now, I need a nap. And a shower.”

“Do you need company?” he asked, “’Cos I could use some.”

“Nice try,” I answered. Ridiculous to think I would be in the mood, and he knew it.

“I’m kidding,” Keith said, sheepishly.

“You are not,” I said. “See you later. Thanks for the lunch. I don’t deserve you.”

“No,” he said, “You don’t. But I keep hoping you will.”

I closed the door behind Keith and in the kitchen, opened the bag of potato chips. It was cool inside the house, and in my tank top, I almost needed a sweater.  I chewed on half of the ham sandwich, with mustard only, just how I liked it, and left the second half uneaten. I went upstairs and while getting undressed, I noticed gold tips on the leaves of the sugar maples that lined the back fence. Late August always seemed incongruous, how the trees just knew their time for turning, as if on cue.

After my shower, I heard Kelly come inside.

“Mom!” she cried. “That nest! You know it’s good luck to find a robin’s nest with whole eggs?”

She walked into my room as I was buttoning up my jeans.

“You should bring it inside,” she said excitedly.

“I’ll leave it out on the porch for now,” I said. “I’ll call Flanders, maybe they can pick it up or tell me what to do.” The nature center was a mile away, and could probably offer some quick advice.

“Yeah, you’re probably right.” She plunked down on my bed and curled up like a tired, satisfied kitten. “Do you have any laundry?” she asked. “I need to wash my restaurant shirt for tomorrow.”

“Sure, honey,” I answered, gathering my dirty clothes from the morning, and stopping to kiss her on the cheek as if she were a napping baby. “I’m doing a load now. Bring it downstairs.”

After she dressed for her reunion with Tom, I met her in the kitchen. She was fresh, her cheeks were lightly shimmered. She had done battle with her thick curls for years, had attacked them with all manner of flattening iron, conditioning salve and straightening paste. My hair is thin and barely holds a wave, and so I genuinely envied her mane, even though saying so had me branded as patronizing and, as her mother, I had no credibility anyway. Lately, though she seemed to have embraced her wild hairstyle, which was distinct in our flaxen-blonde town.

“I wish you wouldn’t,” I said.

“Mom,” she groaned. “He said he was sorry.”

“But he cheated on you, Kelly. You can’t get in the habit of thinking that’s okay,” I insisted.

“He made a mistake. We all do.” Kelly took a can of seltzer from the refrigerator and plunked it on the counter in front of me, popping it open with the aplomb of a veteran bartender.

I wanted to add, “And his father is such a creep,” but I held my tongue, knowing that it would be unfair to pass such judgment onto his son. It was, in fact, awkward to see Tom’s father in the hospital corridors, and I assumed he was doing perpetual reconnaissance on the fledgling nurses, especially the petite, busty ones. I felt sorry for his wife.

“Mom, you just hate men,” Kelly said, matter-of-fact.

“Kelly! I don’t either,” I said, recoiling somewhat from the sharp sting of her words. “What a horrible thing to say!” We fought rarely, and when we did, it wore me out for days. I scrambled for a reply. “You don’t deserve a cheater.”

“I’m sixteen, Mom,” Kelly exclaimed, hands extended before her, palms upturned.  She looked at me and gulped from the soda can. “Not forty-four. Which should be considered young, but which you have redefined as “Time to give up.”

“Kelly,” I said limply.

“Look at how you treat Keith,” said Kelly. “Why do you even bother?”

“That’s really none of your business.” The unspoken words soured in my mouth. I cursed the rulebook that I wanted to tear up again and again, the one where it says a spurned spouse is not allowed to disparage the ex—ever, under any circumstances—to the children.

“Mom, so my heart broke. And we’re getting back together. It’s good and I’m happy.” I stared at her and she continued, “He screwed up. Who doesn’t?”

“It doesn’t mean you have to be waiting at the bus stop as soon as he wants to see you…” I began to feel something close to embarrassment, so I stopped.

“I’ll be home by 12. Promise. I have to be at work at 6 in the morning.” Kelly leaned over and pecked me on the forehead, and I stood to walk her to the door. Confidence lightened her bearing, it was impossible not to see that. “Don’t forget to put my uniform in the dryer! Thanks, Mom!”

My daughter disappeared into the early evening sun, which pooled on the walkway between the hedges. Above it, a wall of heat and light formed, thick and blinding.         

Keith picked me up for dinner in town, and afterwards, I promised my favors for some other time. As we said goodnight, I asked him about Kelly’s accusation – there was no other word for it. I was not angry, but rather mystified.

“You don’t think I hate men, do you?” I asked.  Moths congregated with loud flapping all around the porch light. One sat large and still on the door, a deep celadon green.

“Why do you ask that?” he said, tucking a lock of hair behind my ear, twirling it for a second around his finger.

“Kelly said that,” I answered.

Keith took a deep breath. “She’s a preternaturally wise young lady.”

“Uh-oh,” I said.

“You don’t hate men,” Keith said. “You just don’t like that most of them love women and have no idea how to do that right.”

“That’s absurd,” I protested.

“That’s the truth,” he said, kissing me again. “Now hurry up inside.”

I undressed in the dark, listening for a noise, any noise. I went to Paul’s room, and lay across his bed in my summer night gown, grasping the still-strong scent of a teenage boy. I stared at the ceiling while tears flowed straight down my cheeks, pooled around my ears, soaked my neck and eventually the pillowcase under my head.

Around midnight, I heard Baxter welcome Kelly home with the gentle bark that informs me of my children’s arrival, and not the one he employs to warn me of something menacing or unfamiliar. The door creaked open, and I could hear the faint whisper of the kids on the front porch. There was a sudden quiet, during which I assumed they kissed each other goodnight.

Kelly’s shoes plunked on the floor. She tiptoed into my room. “Mom?” she said, “Mom?” Her voice raised in alarm.

“In here, sweetie,” I said, swinging my legs around to the floor where Paul had planted his size 13 feet every morning. Kelly walked in and sat down beside me.

“I think a raccoon or something got to the nest,” she said, and tears gathered in the corner of her eyes.

“It’s okay, honey,” I said. “What’s wrong? Did tonight go okay?” I took her head in both hands and tilted it up to face me.

“It was great, Mom. Really.” She was crying. Briefly, her expression showed relief.  “Now it’s gone. It was going to bring you good luck.” She looked around, wiping her cheeks and then waved her hands towards the darkness

“The robin’s nest?” I asked. Kelly nodded. “It already did, honey. Now go to sleep. You have an early morning.” I stood and walked her to the bathroom, and myself to my own bed.

When she left for work at 5:45, the sky was just pale enough for me to see her bicycle whir to the stoplight and veer towards town.

Kelly had gathered the eggshells and put them back into the nest. There were a few scattered bits on the porch, but whatever had eaten it had swallowed the inside whole. The trough held the pile of fragments. They were so blue. Aegean, celestial, oceanic blue. I could not bear to think of the devastated mother robin. I wedged the nest into the dark interior of the juniper tree.

In the kitchen, I started my coffee and made my foray to the laundry room. Every morning my feet carried me there, unwittingly, to my children’s clothes. I folded them and put them in piles, which, with an ache of tenderness, I patted and pressed with my palm. With Paul gone, there would much less housework to do, at least until Thanksgiving. In six days, I would be back at the college, with a new school year of my own.

I opened the dryer, gripped the lint catcher, and peeled off the soft gray sheet. It was satisfying, as it always was. Something fell on the floor, bounced once, and landed square and whole. It was the orange shell from my jeans pocket, from the deepest ocean, from a beach somewhere, from a small boy’s hand. I went to Paul’s room and returned it to the cracked clay cup.

Marcia DeSanctis is the author of 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go, a New York Times travel bestseller. She is a contributing writer at Travel + Leisure and Air Mail, and also wrote/has written for Vogue, BBC Travel, The New York Times, Creative Nonfiction, Tin House, Coachella Review, The Common, and many other publications. She has won five Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers, including one for Travel Journalist of the Year.



Wondering what to read next? 

We are huge fans of messy stories. Uncomfortable stories. Stories of imperfection.

Life isn’t easy and in this gem of a book, Amy Ferris takes us on a tender and fierce journey with this collection of stories that gives us real answers to tough questions. This is a fantastic follow-up to Ferris’ Marrying George Clooney: Confessions of a Midlife Crisis and we are all in!


Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Fiction

Human Resources

October 27, 2023
Cassie Las Vegas Skyline

Every time Cassie grumbled about her supervisor Miranda, she remembered the flight they shared on the way home from Las Vegas. The plane was full and Cassie squeezed between the man with a comb-over and her boss, a woman 15 years her senior with a perpetual squint, as if every interaction was an inspection of fine print.

And it was. It had been two years since Miranda took the helm of the hospital’s fundraising team and she still didn’t understand that Cassie hyphenated her last name. It didn’t matter, though, because in Miranda’s eyes, Cassie wasn’t a mother, a friend or a philanthropist; she was Communications Specialist, Classification II. A vessel for words that Miranda had to approve, one by one.

Except, perhaps, on that flight home. It was mid-afternoon and Miranda had insisted they leave the conference early. She navigated airport traffic in her rental car and spent 10 minutes on speakerphone with her administrative coordinator Janet.

“Just explain to Southwest that we need to get back for that donor dinner,” Miranda said as they weaved through the line of Ubers outside Harry Reid International Airport.

“The reservation is at 5,” said Janet through the speakers.

“Exactly.” Miranda leaned forward onto the car horn, startling Cassie. “Those assholes think they are the center of the universe.” She pointed at a sedan in front of them, where a bellhop was helping an elderly couple lift their bags from the trunk.

“Miranda?” Cassie asked. It had taken time, but she had learned to perfect her tone. Inquisitive, curious, non-threatening, with a feminine lilt. “It’s nearly 3 o’clock.”

Her boss pushed her sunglasses onto her forehead and faced Cassie. “That’s why we need the earlier plane.”

Cassie considered pointing out that the flight would take an hour, plus they’d need to budget time for security and boarding. Instead, she took a cue from Janet, whose nails they could hear clicking on her keyboard through the phone.

“Booked you on a flight at 4,” Janet said. “Emailed you the details.”

Miranda pulled forward into the spot vacated by the couple and smiled. “You are the very best, you know, Jan?”

Cassie winced. Janet, never one to mince words, had never liked that nickname. To her credit, she didn’t correct Miranda, perhaps because nobody did. “Fly safe,” she said instead.

Cassie followed Miranda through the airport, both of them dragging wheeled carry-ons. It helped that Miranda’s neon conference badge had flipped over her shoulder, making the small woman easier to find amidst a crowd of high school volleyball girls and the occasional hung-over bachelor party. Cassie held her breath when they reached the security line, which looped in a circle around the baggage claim. Unfazed, Miranda reached for Cassie’s bag and marched them to the very front of the line.

“This is why we pay extra for the security pass,” Miranda said, pulling a card out of her wallet. She either didn’t notice the men and women scowling at them from their places in line or didn’t care.

They made it to the gate with five minutes to spare. Cassie leaned over a drinking fountain, taking big gulps of water to make up for their airport sprint. Maybe Miranda learned to run in heels in her fancy MBA program. She wore a smart business suit with matching gray blazer and didn’t so much as glisten with sweat, while Cassie had already removed her sweatshirt and was fanning herself with a conference brochure that read “Tell stories that matter.”

That was why Cassie worked in fundraising: It was a way to put not one but two creative writing degrees to good use. That, and the allure of the infamous “golden handcuffs”—a solid pension plan and affordable healthcare, two qualities that she, as the mother of a kid with asthma, could not live without.

They had been at the conference two days, and despite being separated by thousands of other nonprofit fundraisers and administrators on other sides of echoey auditoriums, the whole trip had been claustrophobic. The conference had been Cassie’s idea, prompted by a discussion in their weekly one-on-one about professional development opportunities. She was surprised when Miranda approved her request, only to have her hopes dashed when she realized that her boss had bought not one but two conference passes.

“I love a good conference,” Miranda had said. “We’ll get in some good networking, chat up the keynote speaker, take advantage of the open bar…”

“And learn something?” Cassie asked.

“That’s what I was going to say!” Miranda smiled. “I knew there was a reason I hired you.”

And yet Miranda had not hired her. Had she forgotten that? Cassie pre-dated Miranda by three years—at least a decade in nonprofit time. Miranda had not hired Cassie and Cassie had most definitely not hired Miranda. Miranda had been “appointed” by a committee of executives after the previous associate vice president left under mysterious circumstances. This would have taken Cassie by surprise had she not worked in the industry long enough to understand when her opinion didn’t matter.

She followed Miranda down the narrow aisle to their row, where the man with the comb-over had already fallen asleep.

“I don’t do center seats,” Miranda said, gesturing for Cassie to squeeze past her.

Cassie acquiesced, bowing her head as she squeezed her tall frame into the seat. Miranda, meanwhile, waited for the man behind her to offer to lift her carry-on into the overhead compartment.

“Thank you,” she said, offering a pearly-white smile and placing one hand on her chest. Her signature move.

At long last, they were seated. Cassie was conscious of her elbows. God forbid they rub actual shoulders on this trip. Miranda scrolled through her email, oblivious to the way Cassie fidgeted in reaction to every swipe or click.

Cassie leaned back in her chair, closing her eyes with the hopeful thought that maybe if she pretended to sleep she’d be spared an hour of conversation. And then she heard it: A long, uninterrupted baby’s wail. Her eyes shot open, pulse quickening as she saw a man two rows up burping an infant in a green and blue checked onesie. Her anatomy betrayed her, a vise clamping over her heart as she took in those rosy cheeks, quivering as the little boy cried. Without meaning to, one hand fled to her breasts, suddenly tender. The baby looked to be about two months old.

Her son would have been that age.

Had things gone differently, she would be at home on leave, strolling him through the rose garden or bringing him to Mommy and Me music classes while Patrick took their daughter to soccer camp. She wouldn’t be chasing anybody through the Las Vegas airport. Yes, the miscarriage was months ago, but something about that mournful baby’s cry made her chest swell with phantom milk. Before she realized what was happening, tears were dripping down her cheeks and landing in fat drops on her clasped hands.

Without looking up, Miranda laid one hand over hers.

That was it. That was the moment.

Mortified, Cassie withdrew her hot hand from Miranda’s touch and rushed to rub the tears off her cheeks, but the floodgates had opened. The more she scrubbed, the harder they fell, especially when the baby’s cry climbed in pitch.

“Sorry,” Cassie coughed, one hand over her face. “I don’t know what came over me.”

Miranda clicked send on an email and looked at her. “I lost a child too, you know.”

Cassie was quiet. Flight attendants made their circuits of the airplane, checking to see that everyone was buckled in. The lights overhead turned off.

“I wasn’t as far along as you were,” Miranda continued. “But loss is loss. And it’s real.”

Cassie kept her eyes straight ahead. Maybe if she focused on the little boy’s face, she’d see that he was real and the one inside her was no longer. The thought made the lump in her throat larger.

“I—I thought I’d be over it by now,” she said, looking away from the baby, who seemed to have calmed down.

“You don’t get over it.” Miranda’s jaw was set. “Time passes. Other things happen. But there’s no getting over or past the loss of a child.”

Cassie took a risk and looked at her. Who was this woman?

“My daughter keeps asking where her brother went,” she said. “What am I supposed to say?”

Miranda shrugged. “He’s with her.”

Somehow, this felt right. Cassie leaned back, this time letting her eyelids close.

Cassie didn’t wake until the airplane touched down an hour later. She was startled to see Miranda attempting to extricate her Coach bag from the overhead compartment. Her thin arms wobbled for a moment before she stood on her tiptoes and pulled the bag down with a flourish, all the while her mouth didn’t stop moving.

“Now is it the Il Fornaio on North 8th or is it the one on Market?”

Cassie blinked, recognizing the blaze of the bluetooth in Miranda’s ear. She stood up in a rush, banging her forehead on the overhead light. Her boss was already striding down the aisle, calves flexing in nude pumps. Miranda didn’t notice that she’d dropped her conference badge, which lay face-up on the airplane floor, glowing chartreuse amidst a sea of arms and legs reaching for backpacks, purses and carry-ons. Cassie unearthed her messenger bag from its place beneath the seat in front of her and edged out of the row.

“This yours?” The man with the baby held the badge out to her. The boy had pink cheeks and long eyelashes that he was struggling to prop open. Cassie felt her throat catch.

“Thanks.” She reached for the badge, clutching it in her sweaty palms until the man and his son had eased their way down the aisle to the airplane cabin. She let other passengers slip in front of her as she tore the badge up into small, ragged pieces.

Julia Halprin Jackson’s work is forthcoming or has appeared in Mayday Magazine, Okay Donkey Mag, Cutleaf, West Branch Wired, Oracle Fine Arts Review, Fourteen Hills, California Northern and elsewhere. A graduate of UC Davis’ master’s in creative writing program and alumna of Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Mendocino Coast Writers Conference and the Tomales Bay Writers Workshops, Julia is the co-founder and publicity director of Play On Words, San Jose’s collaborative literary performance series, and a 2021-2023 Lighthouse Book Projecteer. See more of Julia’s work here


Wondering what to read next? 

We are huge fans of messy stories. Uncomfortable stories. Stories of imperfection.

Life isn’t easy and in this gem of a book, Amy Ferris takes us on a tender and fierce journey with this collection of stories that gives us real answers to tough questions. This is a fantastic follow-up to Ferris’ Marrying George Clooney: Confessions of a Midlife Crisis and we are all in!


Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Fiction

The Same Country

October 14, 2023

My best friend Kate gathers my thick brown hair into a ponytail and shakes it gleefully. “I’ve been waiting a hundred years for this day! You sure?”

“Positive.” I haven’t done more than trim my hair since my mother died six years ago. But now it’s time for it to go. The wavy bulk, the split ends—all of it must go. I’m sitting under a bald lightbulb in the chilly, unfinished basement of my fiancé’s South Side bungalow. I watch in the mirror as Kate straps on her hairdresser’s holster. Her tiger-print pouch holds scissors, combs, sheers, a razor, and complicated clippers.

“You’re the only one I’d trust to do this,” I say. “But not at Sassoon.” I just can’t waltz into her Gold Coast salon with all those contrast-heavy Nagel prints of Joan Collins and sultry, red-lipped brunettes. I don’t want a bunch of fussy hairdressers giving me the side-eye for my French braid.

Kate pulls a comb from her pocket. “What about Bobby?”

“That’s why we have to hurry!”

“He’s going to freak.”

“Maybe not. And, it’s going to be a big change. I can understand…”

“Does he come straight home after market close?” she asks.

“It’s Monday, so he might come straight home.”

“We’ve got a couple hours,” she says. I close my eyes, not wanting to think or worry about Bobby’s reaction, and what this radical hair change will mean to him, or how it might manage to offend him. But I’ve made up my mind. I need a change.

“Let me make a braid. You can save it,” Kate says.

“For him?

“For you.” Kate digs the comb into my scalp and divides it into three thick plaits. The comb hurts, but I can take it. She binds it with a hair tie, then starts to braid, mildly painful tugs at my temples. “Have you got anymore shit from people about the holiday party?”

“No. And at least I don’t have to see anybody until after winter break.”

“They’ll get over it.”

“I dunno,” I say. “They thrive on gossip.”

“Bunch of pretentious assholes.”

I won’t defend my fellow grad students because their pretentiousness is the one topic on which Kate and Bobby agree. But I want to be accepted by my art-school cohort more than my best friend and fiancé could understand. The photos I’ve shown this first semester of my MFA haven’t been great. It’s hard enough to be judged on my art, but I’m also judged for being twenty-four and already bound to a twenty-seven-year-old stockbroker who acts like he’s forty. Everybody else in the program is so free—making out, staying out, clubbing. At the holiday party, Bobby fulfilled all their expectations, by being an arrogant jackass. He argued about the inflated art market with my professor, Peter. Kate might be right that my program mates are pretentious, but Bobby didn’t need to be so ruthlessly rational about the long-shot nature of what we’re all trying to do: be artists. Is it so farfetched to imagine making a living this way?

Kate’s scissors catch the light from the dangling bulb as she opens them. “Ready?”

“As I’ll ever be.”

“I swear this is going to look awesome.”

It’s not easy to cut through my thick hair, but Kate has the strongest hands of any woman I know. She saws through the hair and hands me the heavy dark braid. I drop it in the hammock of my skirt and close my knees to hide it.

“You down with the Annie Lennox look?” Kate asks.

“I think so.” Annie Lennox has a bleached-blond crewcut. Sweet dreams are made of this. Princesses have long hair, braids that touch the floor. I think of Rapunzel trapped in a castle. I think of Samson, and I hope that Kate’s right, that cutting off my hair will have the opposite effect: I will gain power by losing it. She thinks this is all about changing my style, getting edgier. She doesn’t know about Peter’s cutting remarks during critique about apple-cheeked Midwestern girls in overalls and braids. Even a pixie cut won’t work. I need something drastic, something not docile: a crewcut. I want walk into the photo studio looking like totally different person next semester. Maybe I’ll feel that way too.

I’ve tried to act tough in class, but I’m not a great actress. I can’t stay in character. I slip back into being nice again, because—because of the Midwest. That’s how they all see me. The first week of class, L.A. Vivian said, “You look so apple-cheeked today, Maggie.” I was wearing Clinique blush. I must have put on too much. Now they sometimes call me the Michigan Apple, even though I’m from Chicago. She said my photos of garbage cans in alleys reminded her of “after-school specials” about poverty. That my photos pothole puddles, cyclone fences overtaken by weeds in vacant lots would make great calendars. Once Vivian Clark says you’re on that boring Urban Decay bandwagon, or the Peter says your work is “poverty tourism,” then there’s nothing you can do. Nobody takes your side. Your work gets worse because of it. Even I couldn’t find the rosy spin.

Kate’s scissors whiz around my head, cutting as close to the scalp as she can. She pulls out her electric shaver and runs it up my neck. The razor buzzes, it whirs, it’s the sound of my father shaving. It’s a masculine song in my ears. I start to believe in it.

The razor moves over the slight bump on my head, a spot that’s always been sensitive. I once fell backward onto manhole cover.  Every time the tine of a comb or the foil heads of Kate’s razor touch that spot, I remember the summer day, sitting on a neighbor’s lawn, when a neighbor boy playfully pushed me backward, and my head bounced off the metal. The grass was so high, we hadn’t seen the sewer cover. A lump popped up and never completely went away. But what has lingered most in my mind is Joey’s remorse, how sorry he felt, and how sweet his apologies seemed, coming from a boy.

Kate moves over to the cement utility sink, and I touch my hair, feel the soft bristles. My spine shivers with the chill. I’m colder without all that hair on my neck. I open my knees and warm my hands under the braid, cradling this weighty manifestation of my past.  Would I dare to do this if my mother were still alive?  I look over as Kate attaches a rinsing hose to the tap, then tests the temperature with her index finger. She blows into a pair of rubber gloves and slips them on. She pours a packet of powder into a steel bowl, adding water, and whipping it with a boxy brush. I love watching her. She looks so professional, even if she is wearing a blue flannel, ripped jeans, and leather motorcycle boots. Her own short hair is Flock-of-Seagulls long on top, with a spot of blue at the temple.  She skipped college and went straight to beauty school after high school, and she’s worked her way up to Sassoon. She’s a coveted, always booked hairdresser, and she makes so much cash she doesn’t need to work for months at a stretch, which supports her great passion: backpacking in far-flung locales. She’s heading to Thailand in April to meet up with an Irish girl she met in India. She’s in love.

She wags the peroxide brush at me. “You sure you don’t want to stick with your natural hair color? This isn’t going to tickle.”


Kate dips the brush in the paste and starts to layer on the peroxide, and at first, it’s cool, but then it starts to really tingle and burn. This burning feels like an initiation, and when I grit my teeth with the pain of it, Kate says,“You’ll live.”

In my neighborhood, we goad each other on with these phrases: You’ll live. It won’t kill ya. It’s a question of degree. Take any difficult situation. If it won’t kill ya, then you’ll get over it.

Kate carefully stretches a shower cap over my burning head, and then sets a timer for 40 minutes. While we wait, she pops a cassette of X’s More Fun in the New World in my boombox. The opening riffs get me off the stool, makes me cock my head pigeon style. Kate turns it up louder, so I can’t hear the shower cap crinkling in my ears anymore.  We thrash around the basement, dancing, playing air bass. We dance with no inhibitions, mirroring each other’s hackneyed and comical pirouettes, and when one of us settles into serious oneness with the music, the other lifts an arm, training an invisible spotlight on the other, nodding in head-thrashing approval.   When we sing, “We’re having much more fun!” I feel like we’re shouting at all our enemies. To the tune of an aggressive, exhilarating punk backbeat, we mix all the dance moves from two decades of friendship: the monkey, the nose-dive, the twist, the bump. Kate jabs a finger at the low ceiling, punk John Travolta-style, and comes back with cobwebs threaded between her fingers. She shakes them off, laughing, then grabs my hand and we do a rockabilly jitterbug, spinning each other across the concrete. We’re panting by the end of the “Breathless,” so we raid the basement fridge and chug a couple of Bobby’s Michelobs. We use her hairbrushes as microphones to serenade each other. “I must not think bad thoughts!” We shimmy to the floor, we do bad ballet moves till we’re spent, till the timer ding-ding-dings.

She leads me to the sink, and I lean back in a swivel office chair so my neck rests on the cold lip of the sink. The warm water feels wonderful, as she rinses away the peroxide. Water drips into my mouth and it tastes like metal. I arise from the cement basin a clown, my brown hair now Ronald McDonald orange.

“What the—”

“Don’t worry. This is actually the ‘Sweet Dreams’ color. You need the ‘Here Comes the Rain Again’ color.”

“I don’t have the bone structure to pull off orange hair,” I say.

“Nobody does.”

“You do,” I say. Because Kate is a 5-foot-9 knockout lesbian who came out to me a couple years ago. With all she’s had to deal with, growing up where we do, you’d think I’d have the guts to tell her what’s really been happening in grad school. It’s not that I don’t trust her. I’m just not ready to admit some things, even to myself. Behind Peter’s put-downs, I sense something else—like he’s cutting me down and coming on to me too. Which I really don’t get.  I’ve caught him many times glancing at my engagement ring, the 2-carat cathedral solitaire that Bobby had chosen himself.

Kate wheels me back to the center of the room, and I cradle my braid, as she layers on the peroxide. It doesn’t hurt as much, but still I wince when she brushes that tender spot, and I’m not reminded of the freckles on remorseful Joey’s cheeks; no, I’m remembering the clank of my head against the manhole cover.

“Hurting?” Kate asks.

“Beer helps.” Yet the initial buzz is dwindling into a queasy fatigue, and a glance at the clock fills me with familiar dread. It’s after four, and Bobby might be home in twenty minutes and if not, then he won’t be home for hours.  For once, I’m hoping that he goes out drinking with his trader buddies.

After we rinse out the final coat of peroxide, Kate towel-dries my hair and then works in a cool, silky toner.  “This will make it more lemony.”

She guides me toward the mirror, and I stare at my face. The stark hip hair is a stranger’s. My ears stand out like two washed pieces of marble. My brown eyes look huge against the lemony-white hair.

“Do I look like an alien?”

“Like a foxy alien, baby!” Kate says.

A car door slams in the driveway. Bobby’s home. Kate and I lock eyes. We both get quiet, the only sound the tumble of towels in the dryer. His dryer. I count the empty beer bottles, wanting to toss them quick, but we hear the squeak of his Ferragamo wingtips coming down the basement steps before we have a chance to prepare. Kate grabs her fancy scissors and holds up her hands, showing her weapon. She rolls her eyes, cementing our regression to rebellious kids, with Bobby cast as the Grown-up, the established, hetero male, the college grad, the captain of industry. It’s a force we’ve always rebelled against, and Kate still can’t quite understand how I fell for Bobby two years ago.  Kate’s never spoken against him expressly, while he’s always seen her, my friend who I’ve known since birth, as a threat.

As he comes into the basement, I’m flooded with both dread and a strong desire to melt against his gray suit jacket, to get ahead of his response. My fiancé is 6” 2’, lean as a greyhound, with pearl-grey eyes and straight brown hair. The only way Bobby can reach a state of light-heartedness is if he’s high as a kite or having sex, which means the bedroom is the only place where I can win.  Bobby’s very sensitive, but others don’t get it, they don’t see what I see in him. Though sometimes I wonder what the difference is between sensitivity and touchiness.  Where do you draw the line?

He sets a pile of mail down on top of a table. “Somebody’s parked in the driveway! What the hell, Maggie? What’d you—What’d she do to your hair?”

“Don’t blame Kate,” I said.

“How’s it going, Bobby?” Kate throws back her shoulders and shakes a Camel out of her pack.

“Jesus H. Christ. You look like a dyke, Maggie.”

Kate snorts,. “Nice, Bobby.” She places the cigarette between her lips, freeing her hands so she can zip up her leather jacket. “Look, Mags, I gotta split. Call me tomorrow.”

“Sorry, Kate. He didn’t mean it that way.”

“What do I care?” Bobby throws up his hands, dropping his head and stooping in the exasperated gesture of the Misunderstood Man. “It’s your hair!”

“It sure is, Mags.” Kate says, as she heads toward the stairs. “And hold on to that braid. Maybe I can reattach it for your wedding.”

Bobby starts collecting the beer bottles and putting them in a can by the sink.  After I hear the door shut behind Kate, I turn to him, wrapping my fingers around his wrist. “I can dye it dark again if that’s what you really want,” I say.

“I can’t picture a wedding veil on that hair. Are you planning to wear a tux, too?”

“Our wedding day is two years away.”

“You’ll need white combat boots,” he says.

Upstairs in the guest room closet is a shoe rack full of pumps in in every shade—black, red, navy, even powder blue. When we met, Bobby said all my funky flats looked like waffle irons. I was blown away when he took me shopping and spent hundreds on new pumps. “I don’t want to even think about a wedding till I’m done with grad school.”

“And maybe we can both have best men!” he says. “Or Kate can be your Man of Honor.”

“Shut up. She’s not even butch. She’s a total femme.”

She’s a total femme!” he mocks me.  “She’s in love with you.”

“That’s so stupid it’s not even insulting. She’s my best friend.”

“How do you know for sure though?”

“I know for sure because I know for sure.”

“You’re so naïve. It’s like those assholes in your program. You’re so much better than them. You can’t see the truth. They’re a bunch of wannabes.”

“There’s a huge difference between Kate and them.”

“I’m just trying to help you. Remember what I said. You have to check people’s passports. You can’t just let anyone invade your borders.”

“Kate and I are from the same country.”

“Maybe. But she’s moved to a whole other continent.” He twirls his finger by his temple.

“She’s moved to Lincoln Park. To get away from all the racist bigots around here.”

“So you’d rather be with all the fruits, nuts, and flakes around Wrigley?”

“I’m fine on the South Side. I like our neighborhood.”

“I’ve got my eye on a bigger house,” he says. “With a coach house. So you can have a studio.”

“Really?” I immediately picture a yellow clapboard coach house with a pitched-roof and rectangular skylights. I’d have a shelf for all my cameras, light stands, light modifiers and reflectors. Maybe some backdrops too. I see vertical files filled with slides, and I can almost smell the vinegar tang of the developing fluids I’ll have in the basement dark room. “When did you start looking? You didn’t tell me.”

“Just put the word out to Tommy Costa. He’s doing real estate now. The Bozo franchise thing didn’t work so hot, surprise surprise. But we’d probably need tenants in a coach house to cover the mortgage the first couple of years.”

“I knew there had to be a catch.”

“What do you want from me, Maggie? I’m already paying—”

“My tuition. I know. I know.”

“Well, you and Kate act like I’m some overbearing ogre. I’m doing my best here.”

“I know you are.” I walk over and hug him, draping my arms around his neck. His hands reach for my waist, and he pulls me close. His tight embrace always seems to swallow me, as I’m a good six inches shorter than he is. My mouth pressed to the itchy wool of his suit jacket, I say, “I know” again.  I know how far he’s come. His mother always expected the most from him—valedictorian, captain of the football team, yet it was never enough. To others in the neighborhood, she’d brag about “Her Bobby,” but at home, with him, she could hold a three-day’s grudge if he forgot to take out the garbage. Ignoring a ten-year-old for two or three days demands a particular talent. People in the neighborhood didn’t know that she’d been caught stealing a can of tuna when Bobby was five. She had planted the can in the back pocket of his pants, but a cashier noticed it and asked him to put it on the checkout belt. But his mother made a production out of it, scolding him and insisting that the cashier call the manager. Bobby stood shamefaced, unable to tuck his face into his mother’s lap, as the manager scolded him, while his mother opened up her wallet to show all the dollars she had, more than enough to pay for a pitiful can of Chicken of the Sea.

“What do you want to do for dinner?” he asks. “Should I order a ‘za?”

“Yeah. I’ll clean up down here.”

He heads up the stairs, and I grab a broom from the utility closet. His basement’s layout is exactly like the house I grew up in, where my dad still lives, alone. I knew Bobby only from a distance back in high school. It wasn’t till I was a junior at DePaul that our worlds overlapped. His pursuit of me was swift; he outflanked his rivals with traditionally romantic maneuvers that he dubbed “pitching woo”: chocolates, roses, Anaïs Anaïs eau de toilette. He ascribes to the dyad of Maggie-and-Bobby as some kind of holy force, but I don’t really need a creed to stay committed in the same way he does. If you read his love letters you’d think that we were engaged in an endless crusade against a cruel world, especially the meddling forces of most of my friends. He uses phrases like “true love,” which, I’ve noticed recently that X calls “The Devil’s chokehold.”

I sweep the stray hairs into a pile on the cement floor, then pick up the braid from the top of the washing machine. Wrapping it like a stole around my neck cuts the draft of cold air that wafts down my damp collar. I touch my head, and the bristles tickle my fingertips. Rubbing the soft fur on the back of my neck feels like petting a hamster backwards, a happy comfort that I wish Bobby could experience. What’s the big deal, anyway? It’s just hair. As my mother used to say, “It’ll grow back.” That’s the tack I should take with Bobby. He gets in a funk about stuff like this, and he needs me to lighten the mood. That’s how we work best. Isn’t that what love means? Your bad point, my good point. Puzzle pieces that fit together? It’s perfectly natural, I think, for a glimmer of pity to underpin one’s love.

Eileen Favorite’s first novel, The Heroines (Scribner, 2008), has been translated into six languages. Her essays, poems, and stories have appeared in many publications, including, The Toast, Triquarterly, The Chicago Tribune, The Rumpus, Diagram, and others. Her essay, “On Aerial Views,” was a Notable Essay in the Best American Essays 2020. Eileen was named a 2021 Illinois Arts Council Awardee for nonfiction. She teaches teach writing and literature classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. her TEDx Talk, “Love the Art, Hate the Artist” is available at


Wondering what to read next? 

This is not your typical divorce memoir.

Elizabeth Crane’s marriage is ending after fifteen years. While the marriage wasn’t perfect, her husband’s announcement that it is over leaves her reeling, and this gem of a book is the result. Written with fierce grace, her book tells the story of the marriage, the beginning and the end, and gives the reader a glimpse into what comes next for Crane.

“Reading about another person’s pain should not be this enjoyable, but Crane’s writing, full of wit and charm, makes it so.”
Kirkus (starred review)


Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Fiction

The Master Tailor

September 17, 2023

Note: The ManifestStation is thrilled to share an excerpt from Diane Josefowicz’s brilliant first novel Ready, Set, Oh. Enjoy!

Tavio Brindisi, the master tailor, was dead. Or close to it. If the spirit was ambivalent, the flesh was altogether resolved, as if the cold metaphorical shoulder that Tavio habitually turned against life had at last become real and gone systemic. Yet the undertaker was sure that whenever he turned his back, Tavio was up to his tricks, jerking his thumb, scratching his nose, or twitching his wrist inside his shirt cuff, just enough to dislodge the link.

That was Tavio, a certified hyperactive Ants-In-His-Pants. Not even rigor mortis was going to change that.

Everyone knew the story of how, eight decades back, on a jetty nosing into the green sea, Tavio had embraced his mother, whom he was unlikely to see again this side of heaven. How, at the last moment, he had pulled back, patted her shoulder, and said: Eh, basta. Ebbasta. Enough.

In any other family, it might have been dismissed, or minimized, or forgotten—just another one of those mysteries that charge the world like soap on a brush, lifting the day’s stubble, the better to scrape it away. It was not such a mystery, though, if you knew the Brindisis. A hair-raising family, with minds like quicksilver and feelings to match.

On the quay, Tavio’s mother had stepped back, fixing her son with the trademark Brindisi dick-shriveling look. And into his pockets, quick as rabbits, went those fidgety hands—the same ones that now refused to stay folded, one over the other, even as the undertaker silently threatened him with the moose glue and the stapler.

Dom Carcieri wiped his face, surprised to find it filmed with sweat.

There was another story about Tavio: When the immigration officer in the Port of ProvidTavio was never one to make things easy. Stitching Tavio’s mouth shut, it occurred to him that to do so was a pleasure not granted to many in this life.ence asked for his place of birth, Tavio replied, Baccauso Natale, which meant, in rougher words, Original Shithole. This response was recorded, even though Tavio had named not so much a place as a state of mind. Di dove? Where you from? The question was the refrain of his days. And so Tavio would dig his papers from his wallet and point to the relevant line, proof that he did hail from a Shithole, all the while gesturing at some forgettable geography over his shoulder.

The undertaker spun the lid off the container of pancake makeup and smoothed a palmful over Tavio’s face. The effect was mildly Floridian.

It was his father, he recalled, who had sponsored Tavio’s passage. The ticket was a favor, the sort of thing people did back then. Being the beneficiary of such generosity didn’t stop Tavio from running his mouth, of course, griping to anyone with an open earhole about his steerage ticket. Still, Tavio had more than repaid the Carcieri family over the years. Not so much in money—Dom Senior was happy to embalm everyone in town, but he refused, on principle, to be anyone’s padrone—but in tailored trousers, waistcoats and cummerbunds, double-breasted, three-piece, you-name-it, so that the two families had been literally in each other’s exquisitely stitched pockets for decades, at holidays, weddings, and perhaps especially, given the Carcieri family business, at funerals, when Tavio  made sure to get everyone’s sartorial details, not least the corpse’s, exactly right. The hand, the drape, the pleat, the hem—these details mattered so much to Tavio that, even after the advent of the electric sewing machine, he insisted on hand-stitching the jobs that still came his way, each stitch no bigger than a tsetse fly. What a pain in the culo you are, Dom Carcieri muttered into Tavio’s ear and, feeling a tickle, snipped away a single coarse hair. He wove Tavio’s fingers together and set them with a dab of glue. He nudged the elbow; the hands stayed where they were. Piano, piano—he draped a rosary over them and resisted the temptation to further buff the fingernails. Best not to push. Tavio was stubborn, and he got attached to things. Fidgeting, for instance. Or a good suit.

Tavio, who would have been a hundred come July, was dressed in a gray morning suit cut in the no-nonsense style popular during the Eisenhower administration. He’d made the suit twelve years before, in ’55, right after he’d learned that the pains in his head were due to something more sinister than the eyestrain that might be expected from a lifetime spent hunched over a needle and thread while trying, at the same time, to raise three daughters, all of whom seemed bent on murdering him with their agita-producing behavior. Not to put too fine a point on it—Dom Carcieri flicked a bit of lint from Tavio’s shoulder—those Brindisi girls were agita-machines, as evinced by all the chest-tightening stories that made their way around the neighborhood: the burnt Sunday gravies, the kitchen fires and laundry-room floods, not to mention the assorted abrasions, bangs, burns, blisters, concussions, contusions, and, above all, the operatic heartbreaks that always seemed to happen when one of the girls did not get her own way in some matter, usually romantic. Hoping his daughters would be good, plain American girls, Tavio had given them good, plain American names—Mary, June, and, daring to be a little fancier with his youngest, Lorraine. All for nothing, or nearly so: for they were neither good, nor plain, though they were certainly American in their love of home appliances, their excitement over mark-downs at Shepard’s, and their expressive driving—about which, Dom reflected, crossing himself, the less said, the better. Tavio had been especially undone by their antics after his wife, Emmie, had died of heart failure while hanging sheets in the backyard on the same day that the radio carried the news of Lou Gehrig’s retirement. Without Emmie, the girls were Tavio’s alone to manage, and they were a handful. More than.

Dom Carcieri rubbed his eyes. What had he forgotten?

Never mind. Watch the hands.

Yes: They had not moved, not even when the glue had rolled down one knuckle, a detail gone awry that Tavio, in better days, would not have been able to resist correcting for an instant. Dom Carcieri wiped the glue away, noting not just the folded hands but also the ruby glass rosary spilling from them, the gold wedding band, the makeup that lightened, but did not quite conceal, the liver spot at the base of one thumb. Satisfied, he closed the lid with a smack, which he immediately regretted. It was never good to be a sore winner, even if the old mule had asked for it, putting up a fight even as the earth was being prepared to receive him. On his way out, after he’d locked the door, Dom Carcieri had a crazy feeling: What if, while he was gone, Tavio got up and improved something?

He shook his head. No point getting worked up. There weren’t too many of these guys left, men of his father’s generation.  On the one hand, you hated to see them go. On the other, well, it was just as his father always said. Nature’s way.

The old man’s five years gone, he thought, and still I ’m hearing his voice in my ear. As if his father still held the keys to life and death, the way he’d held the keys to the car, and the liquor cabinet, and the funeral parlor’s back room. But the only thing his father was holding now was a handful of dirt in the Pocasset cemetery, his wedding ring resting loose around the bone. The tombstone gave the basics: b. 1870, Pietravairano, d. 1962, Providence.

A world was disappearing with these guys—the old places, the old ways.

The undertaker rattled the door again and made for home, where he heated a cup of milk and drank it at the kitchen sink. When the grandfather clock chimed midnight, he padded upstairs and slipped into bed beside his wife, her sleeping face slack as any corpse’s, her nightgown hiked and twisted. At five, he opened his eyes to a nightingale singing. He reached under the blankets to touch his chest, as if that damned nightingale were trapped inside. But of course, it was only his own heart. It slowed; he breathed easier. His wife murmured in her sleep.

Dom Carcieri heaved himself upright.

The hat. Goddamn it. He’d gone and forgotten Tavio Brindisi’s goddamn top hat.

Diane Josefowicz’s fiction and essays have appeared in Conjunctions, Fence, Dame, LA Review of Books, and elsewhere. As a historian, she is the author, with Jed Z. Buchwald, of two histories of Egyptology, The Riddle of the Rosetta (2020) and The Zodiac of Paris (2010), both from Princeton University Press; and a novella, L’Air du Temps (1985), forthcoming from Regal House. She serves as reviews editor at Necessary Fiction and director of communications for Swing Left Rhode Island, a progressive political organization focused on electoral work, voter protection, and voting rights. She holds an MFA from Columbia University, a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a BA from Brown University. She grew up outside Providence, where she now lives with her family. Ready, Set, Oh is her first novel.


Wondering what to read next? 

This is not your typical divorce memoir.

Elizabeth Crane’s marriage is ending after fifteen years. While the marriage wasn’t perfect, her husband’s announcement that it is over leaves her reeling, and this gem of a book is the result. Written with fierce grace, her book tells the story of the marriage, the beginning and the end, and gives the reader a glimpse into what comes next for Crane.

“Reading about another person’s pain should not be this enjoyable, but Crane’s writing, full of wit and charm, makes it so.”
Kirkus (starred review)


Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Fiction, Self Image


June 17, 2022

Maybe she had really made it all up, just the way a bratty, superficial snob would.

It was like all those times she’d walked from her parent’s house to the nearest little train station, one train every hour, for the commute into Sydney for uni. All those obnoxious car horns as she walked the main road from home pissed her off, not to mention the rabid, unintelligible catcalling voices out the windows. They struck her from behind, sharp and jarring, without any warning, before fading away into the backwind and exhaust pipe fumes as the cars carrying them sped off.

Lavinia just had to take it as she walked, even if it meant that despite her physical fitness, she’d more often than not arrive on the station platform with a stabbing pain in her chest from all the unpredictable, shock noises that had stalked her along the way. She could have changed her route off the main road, down along the bike track and along the waterfront lined with mangroves, but it would have added at least ten minutes to her walk. Besides, she’d been determined that she shouldn’t have to be the one to change her routine, her behaviour. It was a matter of principle.

It didn’t stop her from complaining though. The whole thing pissed her off.

“I hate it here. Why did you have to choose to live in a place like this? So many gross bogans screaming catcalls out of cars. I can’t go anywhere without it happening,” she spoke sourly to her dad as they sat at the dining room table over coffee. One hand held a macadamia milk cappuccino halfway to her lips while the other rifled through the new Louis Vuitton monogrammed bag she’d just dropped three months of Christmas casual retail wages on.

“Drop the attitude. It happens everywhere,” her dad cut across her, firmly dismissive.

Ironic, that the whole ‘it happens everywhere’ cliché is always the go-to dismissal for problems like this; completely ignorant of the fact it actually hits the nail right on the head. It happens – everywhere.

Maybe Lavinia had lashed out, scapegoated a bit. Maybe her reactions were immature, superficial. But despite still lacking the right words to express herself, the eighteen-year-old still seethed at the idea that she was the one who had to be nit-picked at, she was the one put on trial for not complaining in the right words, when all she wanted to do was walk to the station in fucking peace.

The whole thing made her feel small, embarrassed and awkward, so she probably did put on an attitude to compensate.

At least now Lavinia was gradually growing into her looks and her style, shedding the puberty fat. It meant most of the street harassment could technically be interpreted as enthusiastic compliments. Not like two years ago. Sixteen, and on a family daytrip a bit further up the coast – ordinary but generally overpriced fish and chip shops and cafes along the sunny beachside esplanade.

Ah yes, who could forget that year? If Lavinia had been American maybe it would have been ‘Sweet’ Sixteen? But maybe that was just something in movies. In any case, for her it had meant fatter thighs, acne and a weird kink in her hair.

The previous year she’d been on her first overseas exchange trip – to Japan. And now, on this outing with her family, she’d decided to wear a dress she’d bought cheap with some pocket money back in Tokyo, Harajuku specifically, where she’d been out shopping with her host sister. It was a borderline cosplay of the sailor-style school uniforms for girls in Japan – much more fun than the boring uniforms she had to wear in Australia – and it had a short hem.

“Oi!” A loud, jeering voice sounded a little way across from her as she walked with her mum along the paved esplanade, carrying a cardboard tray of take-away coffees. In the corner of her eye she saw a man in board shorts, a t-shirt and sunglasses, standing beneath one of the navy blue outdoor umbrellas in front of the cafe they’d just come out of.

“Cover up ya fat slut!”

It was true her thighs were a bit fatter than they’d been before, and maybe the dress didn’t suit her that well either, at least technically. Maybe it was a bit weeb-y, for anyone who even knew that word. But who the fuck cared? She was just a kid, for god’s sake. The man who yelled at her, very conspicuously so everyone knew exactly who he meant, looked maybe about forty. But it was from a distance and what sixteen-year-old can really tell in detail anything above twenty-five or so?

The whole thing was humiliating and it cut the day short. It was awkward with that short hem, walking up the sharp incline of the hill to where the car was parked.

“This is why I told you not to wear that. Why do you have to do this to yourself?” Her mum grimaced as she walked alongside. Lavinia’s dad and younger brother were walking directly behind, snickering as she kept trying to tug down the hem over the most hideous part of her thighs. They hadn’t been there to hear the stranger scream the words ‘fat slut’, but they must have been aware something had happened to upset Lavinia, something to set off a teenage girl tantrum.

The snickering didn’t stop until Lavinia’s mum turned around and snapped irritably: “Enough already, she knows!”

Lavinia still couldn’t bring herself to speak. Why couldn’t they just read the room for once and at least stop walking directly behind her on that steep incline, where anyone could so easily get an accidental, and presumably grotesque, glimpse up her dress? The dress she had no business wearing and now felt silly and over-exposed in.

Amidst the self-loathing, guilt and embarrassment though, some part of Lavinia still managed to think: what about the forty-year-old bloke screaming sexually explicit abuse at a sixteen-year-old girl? Why doesn’t anyone get annoyed at him? Surely he has to be grosser than my thighs.

“Fuck off!” Lavinia turned and yelled at her brother and dad. But the male pair just looked at each other with humorous, knowing glances as if to say, “chicks…”

She carried the residual echo of that day ever since. She simply had to learn: protection whether you wanted it or not, but you don’t get to choose the terms. Somehow it felt like being a sports car, sitting in the garage while its owner one-sidedly negotiated deals for theft, vandalism and whatever-else insurance. Because it was a car. Why would you ask for a car’s thoughts on anything?

She didn’t want that to be her life.


Now at twenty-one, honours student and a committed member of the university’s karate club, she was starting to feel like at last she was finding her feet.

Although very recently there’d been a slight…hiccup, you could probably say.

A new guy had come and joined the club. He was maybe just a little bit odd and awkward, but nothing she’d thought much of at first. It was when he started the harassment and stalking, the groping her during drinks at the rooftop beer garden then throwing his drink in her face when she’d pushed him away, that she began seeing him as a problem. Of course, they’d all been a bit drunk that night at the beer garden and the drink in the face had just been an accident; the angry, baiting texts for days afterwards meant for someone else, clearly.

Lavinia was the uptight, superficial snob. The other, cooler girl, (Sarah?), who looks kind of like her said she’s a bitch too. See, it’s not just him. What the hell was she trying to prove taking a stupid old Louis Vuitton bag to drinks in Redfern anyway? She’d better stop being such a bitch if she wants boys to like her. He’ll be waiting for her after nighttime training, sometime next week, but he hasn’t decided what day…

Lavinia’s stomach turned, but then the sickly, churned contents started to simmer. She may have eventually caved and changed her walking route to the station when she was eighteen, but there was no way she was going to let this random creep just turn up and elbow her out of her own club; something she’d put so much sweat, blood, vomit, searing muscle pain, and self-actualising, borderline-masochistic determination into. The next day she filed an official complaint with the university – somewhat underwhelming and anti-climactic of an experience, but still.

And to people’s credit, they offered her lifts back to Central Station after night training, asked her if she was okay and if there was anything else they could do. She even got a few: “I thought he was a bit weird too”-s. The creep kept out of her way, with surprisingly little controversy, at least to her face. Eventually he faded out of the club altogether. But still for a little while after, Lavinia kept accepting lifts in the cars of those who drove, usually the same two or three people.

One night though, someone else made an offer, someone who up until now never had. Garry was a few years older than Lavinia, in a masters programme. He was one of those people who you never quite knew where you stood with, and who seemed convinced everyone should be concerned about where they stood with him to begin with. “Hey, I’ll give you a lift,” he waved her over, more of a directive than a suggestion, but he had his nice-guy voice on, so despite her gut, Lavinia complied.
She slung her sports bag onto the back seat then sat up the front next to Garry. At first no words were exchanged as they trundled down the dark streets of Annandale where the club had recently relocated for Monday nights due to the on-campus fitness centre being over-booked. Footpaths were lined with turn-of-the-century bare brick warehouses, motorbike shops and no-frills ethnic eateries that had been there for decades, now sharing with a consistent scattering of gentrified cafes and burger bars.

Inside the car was silence. Garry did this sometimes; called someone over only to then just sit mute, watching them squirm in the awkwardness of trying to work out what he wanted and whether or not they should already know. Lavinia unconsciously gripped the hem of her skirt, balling the fabric tightly in her fist. She knew what this was and she regretted her decision to get into his car. But no matter what, she refused to give him the satisfaction of being the one to break the silence.

Although it was dark, she could still make out his face, flashing intermittently into view for a few seconds at a time whenever they bypassed a streetlight. She saw the brief flicker of confusion in his eyes and the corners of his mouth twitching hesitantly. This clearly wasn’t going according to his plan and Lavinia relished in the satisfaction, even if it was destined to be only a small, short victory.

“So, you’ve been the topic of some of the club exec meetings…” Garry finally deigned to break the silence himself. He spoke in a soft, somber tone, as if delivering news to someone guilty and shameful, someone who needed to come clean already and stop causing so much unsightly mess. For all of Garry’s attitude, for all the clever subtlety he thought he had, for all the blank faces he pulled when he played dumb, there was still an overwhelming stench of sleaziness about him – like a glut of sewerage creeping up the pipes and oozing just a little bit over the drain grate in the shower or the kitchen sink.

“Look, you’re an attractive girl.”
Shit. He took her off guard with that one.

Lavinia was ashamed that she felt just a bit flattered and pushed the feeling down, hoping none of it had showed up on her face. At least it was still dark enough along the back roads heading towards Central Station.

“Will you let me tell you what I think?” Garry continued, the question, of course, being basically just a piece of arbitrary punctuation, leading into what he’d already decided was going to come next. “I think you have trouble relating to people. But I promise, you will find some close friends.”

What the hell?

A strange knot pulled itself tight in Lavinia’s stomach with a single, heavy-handed jolt. She felt the heat of her face flushing.

What the hell would you know?
I’ve definitely got more real friends than you, dickhead.

The words were in her head but they caught in her throat as she struggled to find her bearings in this bewildering situation in which she was a captive audience. She stared deliberately out the window, watching the grainy, shadowy outlines of terrace houses and shop-fronts go by. But Garry wasn’t about to stop. Clearly he’d rehearsed this.

“As a senior club member I have a responsibility to tell you that throwing tantrums isn’t a good look. Maybe the guy upset you, said something you didn’t like, I don’t know. But sensei and all us execs have enough on our plates without also having to deal with your personal problems.”

They were out on the main road now, middle lane, with lots of cars on either side. The lights of the CBD were small but discernable in the distance.

“Think of it this way,” Garry’s voice never rose. No sharp barbs or jutting edges. Just a consistent, unbroken flow that gently snuffed out anything else that tried to break its way in edgewise. “There’s really no such thing as gender equality,” he said. “But what we can do is create an environment of equality. That’s what sensei and male seniors in the club like me do for you girls, whether you recognise it or not. So I’d like you to try putting things into perspective and being a bit more mindful of how good you really have it.”

Could what Garry just said be true? Even just a little bit? The truth was she hated being a victim and honestly felt embarrassed to be the focus of any controversies, or even just mild annoyances for people. So maybe she should consider: had she exaggerated out of anger in the moment? It wasn’t as if she’d been dragged into an alley, pinned down and raped. Maybe she’d accidentally mislead by doing something that was meant as a recourse for actual victims. Yeah, the new guy had disturbed her, but she hadn’t been in active fear for her life or anything like that – it hadn’t occurred to her to be, at least not at that point.

Maybe she had really made it all up, just the way a bratty, superficial snob would.

They were getting close to the back end of Central Station by now, but to Lavinia the road felt like an endless treadmill, so close to the place where she could finally get out of this car, yet so excruciatingly far. Only the traffic surrounding them seemed to be going fast.

But still, Garry wasn’t done:

“You’re not entitled to anything. Not even to live. I could steer this car right into all that traffic in the left lane and kill you. It would be that easy.”

Wait, what?

The knot synched itself tight once again in Lavinia’s stomach. Was the air-conditioning on a really cold blast or was something else, something terrible, crawling all over her skin and tingeing her fingernails washed-out purple?

Discreetly she stretched her pinky finger out and hooked it under the door handle. Maybe she had enough physical strength and agility to roll out of the moving car, like in an action movie. In any case, she had reasonable confidence she could do it if she had to without dying, even if it meant getting scraped and possibly lacerated by the tar and gravel.

But when she made a little tug at the handle with her pinky, it was only to find the passenger door had been locked from the driver’s side. Garry’s hands drifted, maybe a centimetre, up off the wheel and Lavinia’s eyes widened…

Then the car stopped. They were parked at the back entrance to the station; yellow sandstone illuminated in the now stagnant, unmoving streetlights, and in contrast with the glass and stainless steel downward escalator that ran parallel to the original marble stairs. When Lavinia heard the dull, plastic-y sound of a lock on the passenger’s side finally click open she clambered straight out, almost forgetting her gym bag, which she grabbed at the last second with a hurried swipe of her arm into the back seat.

Garry sat stationary in the driver’s seat, face almost expressionless except for the corners of his lips, turned faintly upward in a look of calm satisfaction. “Homework,” he stopped her abruptly just as she made to close the door, now safely out of the car and with her gym bag slung over one shoulder. “Go over our conversation just now in your head and see if you can think about the concepts a bit more deeply. Make notes if you have to, and I’ll look over them if I have time.”

Lavinia just closed the door without a word and he drove off.

Descending the escalator into the station her head began to clear and all the things she should have said came flooding in. Why the hell did she just sit there and take that? Because he was threatening to kill her? Sort of?

Part of her considered whether the whole thing was something to go to the police over. Did what just happened actually count as anything though? Garry had probably been right in his own semi-incoherent, delusional and juvenile way – the guys were the ones still setting the terms. It had been that way when she was ‘fat slut’ at sixteen, and that way still when she was ‘uptight, superficial snob’ at eighteen. So why should now be any different?

Garry was still a dickhead though.

Katie-Rose Goto-Švić is a Croatian-Australian emerging writer living in Japan. She writes fiction in both English and Japanese. She studied a Bachelor of Political, Economic and Social Sciences with an additional major in Japanese Studies at the University of Sydney, and now works in business development for renewable energies. Her crime/psychological fiction manuscript ‘The Kids Aren’t Alright’ was selected as a finalist for the 2021 Page Turner Writing Award. She also has a piece of prose about the treatment of words over social media, entitled ‘Ballad of the Preacher, the Poet and the Psycho’, scheduled for publication in the ‘New Contexts: 3’ anthology by Coverstory Books. 


Have you ordered Thrust yet? 

“Blistering and visionary . . . This is the author’s best yet.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)


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Fiction, Guest Posts, Marriage


June 10, 2022

I leaned my bike against a rotting tree colored with chalky gray lines and walked along the high blond grass and thick weeds that carpeted the land. With my Nikon, I snapped a shot of the tree. I loved the curiosity that photography unveiled. I had just biked around Lake Waramaug, taking in the sparkling water, the well-manicured lawns and large mansions, the red-painted farmhouses with their attending cows and horses grazing, the empty Adirondack chairs  – some wood, some colorful green or red plastic – lounging on the front lawns.  The docks that held kayaks, canoes, oars, a trampoline in the water nearby, yellow and purple wildflower fields that held the promise of joy.  Everything so pretty and tidy, and then I noticed an old-looking, dilapidated gray wooden barn that stood out in its austerity, its tiredness.  It was set back and surrounded by tall grass, but not the ornamental, landscaped kind that grew on some of the other properties.  Why was this barn here?  Without my camera, I wouldn’t have seen it.

I was finally doing this again: focusing on my photography. I hadn’t taken pictures in years. When I gave birth to my oldest child, I swapped taking candid shots of people and birds in Central Park for close ups of my daughter’s face, her eyes, feet, and hands. It felt more worthy of my time. And I didn’t have to get a sitter.  But over time, as my kids grew older, my Nikon gathered dust on the top shelf of the closet, behind my old hats and pocketbooks.  Having a free summer without work when my three girls preferred their friends’ company over mine was the perfect opportunity to get back to photography. And David went to work that day; I was finally alone.

I walked along the tall grass that led to the barn.  Foxtail grass and dandelions were scattered throughout.  I listened to the cicadas sing.  I breathed in the scent of honeysuckle and asked myself — for the 100th time— why I never plant them.  The barn had a rusty tin roof; I snapped a few shots of it.   It was nice to finally dream again.  That’s how I felt when I took pictures – like I was in a dream, fully sensing my surroundings without being distracted by my to-do list, my daily worries and concerns.

The door to the barn had a brass padlock that looked ancient.  I snapped shots of the padlock and hung the camera’s strap around my neck. I wondered if I should go in.

Snapping pictures reminded me of Brian – Professor Walden. I tried to push him from my mind. Brian was my photography professor from college on whom I had had a crush.   He was smart, confident, unabashed.  He had tried to give me direction when I was a senior feeling lost with my impending graduation.  I knew he liked me, and I was attracted to him. But afraid of him too.  He was sure of himself and unafraid. He knew who he was when I was lost.  My mind drifted back to that spring afternoon when we reviewed my portfolio. He said how much he liked my photo of a sunset: my favorite photo.  I had waited many long minutes for the orange and yellow to blend into a burnt pink.  I took hundreds of shots until it was ripe. Just the right pink.  I cared. When I had never truly cared about my studies.  I studied because it was what you did.  I made good grades so I could make good grades, get a good job. Whatever that meant.  I just kept going without stopping to think or care. But I loved photography. He saw my work; he got it.  When we looked at the photograph together, me leaning in to see it better, he touched my arm as he emphasized the beauty of the photo’s lighting. And he left his hand there.  I didn’t want him to move it.

He asked me to join him for a hike in New Paltz the following morning. It was supposed to be a beautiful day. Told me to meet him where he parked his car on Broadway at 9:00 a.m.   But my fear took over. It felt like a foregone conclusion.  I wasn’t the type to sleep with my professor. I was a straight, good, responsible girl.  It was flattering, of course. But really!  So I never showed. I stopped visiting him during office hours.  After a couple of weeks, I regretted it, but it felt too late.  Like I had dimmed a light switch that then became stuck. Now, sometimes when I felt conventional and dull, a typical suburban middle-aged mom, I imagined the scandal we could have caused, my friends reactions, the whispers and stares, my parents shock that I was dating someone their age, the inevitable hurt feelings and insulted egos to the guys my age with whom I hung out.  What if I would have just let go and fought the fear? That nauseating lump in my throat that guided most of my decisions. What would have happened?  Where would I be?  Who would I be?

I approached the barn door, and it dared me to enter.  “Real photographers take chances,” Brian had said to me when I marveled at the danger some photographers endured to capture the perfect shot:  a tiger’s teeth, the 100 – foot waves in a hurricane, a Colorado avalanche.   Now, my life was so safe, hardly risky at all.  What types of shots would I capture in my suburban town with its manicured quarter- acre lots?

The padlock was not locked.  No voices behind the door.  The rough wood splintered my finger as the door creaked open.  The barn’s single room smelled musky, mildewed, with a hint of lavender. Light streamed through an open window. A mattress with a single blanket and pillow lay on the floor, and a battery-operated fan and a box of tissues sat next to it. A wooden table and chair stood in the middle of the room.  Someone had placed a bowl of blueberries on the table. I took several shots of the blueberries’ cloudy coating, a close up of the grains of wood on the table.

To be behind the lens – to be the one looking out – also jived with my new sense of being unseen, invisible. Over the last couple of years, my attractiveness had faded.  First with the few gray hairs that sprouted at my roots, shining with their defiance. Then, slowly with the extra weight I put on around my stomach, despite my daily exercise.  But it really hit me when I stopped getting catcalls while walking in Manhattan past construction crews.  A final hit of reality came when my male students looked right past me without the slightest bit of flicker in their eyes.  That was a big change from my early teaching days when one of my students casually placed a DVD of “The Graduate,” at the edge of his desk on top of his textbook, daring me to acknowledge it.  When I would keep my door open during conferences with male students just in case.  At first this change sucked. I didn’t know who I was without my looks – something that had been a big part of my identity since I was about thirteen.  Not until my beauty dissipated did I realize how men had favored me and treated me well. From the clerks at the checkout counter to my colleagues at work to the dads from my kids’ soccer games.  But a part of me embraced this shift. Liberated and safe, I could do whatever I wanted without asking for trouble, being a tease, leading someone on. I was almost invisible in this new identity.

I sat on the floor and leaned against the wall, the silence enveloping me.  Nowhere to go. Nothing to do. The sun hit my chest and warmed me.  A peacefulness settled. I could stay there forever. There were berries and a place to sleep, shelter should it rain. Who lived here?  I couldn’t remember the last time I just sat and listened.  Always running. . . .   I drifted off to sleep.

“Who are you?!” I jumped from surprise, and my heart raced.  I stood up.

A man stood above me. His brown, grayish hair was long, hanging until his chin. He was barefoot and wore a white undershirt and blue jeans.

“I’m Janet. Janet. I was biking around the area, taking photographs, and was curious about the farm, I mean the barn.”

“Well, I live here,” he said as he sat on a lawn chair in the corner of the room.  He took a leash off a white fluffy dog, who approached me and began to sniff my groin.  I pushed her away.

“I’m sorry.  To have just come in.” I fidgeted with my watch. I looked back at the door, ready to dart out. But my legs didn’t follow.

I noticed there was an Atlantic magazine on the floor near the chair. He wore black wire reading glasses. I stared at him for a minute and felt calm in his presence even though I should have been afraid.  For some reason, I was not, just intrigued. Who was he?  How on earth did he pull this off?   There were several books on the floor next to his chair. A biography on FDR, a collection of works by William Faulkner, a “Spanish for Dummies.”  Several newspapers also rested on the floor, a Litchfield Review’, a N.Y. Times.  The pages looked puffy, like they had been leafed through, touched, read, and reread. Next to the newspapers was a battery-operated radio. There were no outlets, lamps or other sign of electricity.

“I’m  . . . I’m Janet Sullivan. From Westchester.  I love the area and was biking around. I used to  . . . rent a house here in the summer when I lived in the city.” I was talking too fast, sounding too guilty.

“You mean Manhattan?”

“Yes,” I laughed.

“Why do we all do that, call Manhattan the city, like there are no others?”

“Yeah, I guess that’s true. Um . . . Did you spend time in the city?,” I asked.

“I didn’t spend my entire life in this dilapidated barn if that’s what you’re asking me.”

“No, I didn’t mean. . . ,” My palms felt damp.

“I did live in Manhattan for five years, then it got too expensive for me, so. . . “ he shrugged.

“Yes, us too.” I forced a laugh.

“You have a family?”

“Yes, I’m married with three kids.”

“Nice. That’s the right thing to be when you’re young.”

Another forced laugh.

“Take a seat,” he said and pointed to a folding chair next to him.

Sitting felt like too much.  I glanced at the door, and I knew I could just walk out, get on my bike, and never come back to this place again.  But the danger enticed me, made me dizzy.

Seriously.  Make yourself comfortable.”

The tone of his voice—daring me to just let go—reminded me of Brian.  I was back on a field trip my photography class took to an urban farm where they grew citrus fruits. There were ripe lemons and limes at the near part of the garden, and the group of students all took  close-ups of them. I noticed a single small, blooming, bright orange on a tree at the far side of the garden.

“Go ahead. Focus on what catches your eye, on what attracts you the most,” Brian said.

There was no clear path to the orange tree, and tractors were parked in front of it, blocking my chance for a close-up.

“But, how—”

“Just try to get as close as you can then zoom in on it.”

I walked ahead, scratching my legs against the tall vines.  I jumped over some shovels, stopped just in front of the tractors, and zoomed in on the stray dangling orange burst.  It was the best photograph I’d ever taken.

Now, the metal seat felt cold against my butt. I didn’t know what to do with my hands.

“What do you do?”  I wished I hadn’t asked that. I didn’t even care.

“Well, I was a lawyer for many years, and now I’m reading and walking and not spending money, but existing.  I robbed a bank a while ago, so I have enough money.”  He folded his arms.

I studied his face. He wasn’t smiling, and he looked me in the eyes.

“You’re kidding.”

“No.  How about you?”

“I’m a teacher. Sixth Grade.”

“Well, that’s noble.”

I couldn’t imagine him with a past or a future.  He just was.  He had deep laugh lines around his eyes and wrinkles around his mouth. His hair looked a little greasy and his clothes looked soft and faded, like they had been washed hundreds of times.  He had light blue eyes.

“Want to take a walk? My dog needs lots of exercise or she gets restless and jumpy.”

I recalled my failure of nerve with Professor Walden.  The nagging regret.

“That would be great.”

His dog was resting on her belly, her paws spread out in front of her. She looked at me, and I smiled at her and looked away. When I glanced back, she was still looking at me.

“I’m Jon.” He put out his hand to shake mine. His hand was rough and warm.

He got up and put the leash on the dog. I followed him outside the back of the house to the yard that led to a path in the woods.  It felt like a dream, an alternate world I had created only in my mind.  Despite the shade from the trees, the path grew lighter. Colors were brighter:  the yellow dandelions looked neon; the pale blue sky was now turquoise.

We walked along the path, the dog sniffing something on the ground every couple of yards. After a few minutes of silence, I aimed my camera to snap a shot of Jon against the backdrop of these bright woods.

“Hey!  What are you doing?  Stop that. I don’t want anyone taking my picture.”

I jumped from his shout and awoke from my dream. The colors faded.

“Let me ask you something. How did you get the guts to just barge into an empty house?”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t  . . . ”

“I guess you felt it couldn’t matter too much. Nobody too threatening can be in a dilapidated house. Not in this neighborhood with its fancy homes and lawns.”

Something inside me said to run.  But Jon smiled at me, and it didn’t feel like a threat. His blue eyes were kind, the eyes of someone who might appear to be brusque, but was good inside.

“Listen, honey. You don’t know me. But you took a risk.”

“I guess I did,” I said as I forced a smile.

He spoke louder. “You sure as hell did. There are crazies everywhere you turn. But you weren’t afraid. You burst into my house.”

Should I leave?  Was I dramatic in thinking I might be in trouble?

“So, what are you looking for?  Most people don’t just do what you did. What’s missing in your life?”

He stopped and stared at me.  I’ve seen many movies where you want to scream at the stupid girl to run away.  But I wasn’t afraid. I could stay with him in the woods forever and be okay.  I wasn’t attracted to him, but I wanted to be near him.  He was the alternate door, the one I usually avoided.  And who knew what was beyond this door?  How much adventure and excitement I might have been avoiding all this time?

“Maybe purpose, meaning. I feel . . . less relevant.”


“My kids are growing up fast. They don’t need me so much anymore.”

“Why does that matter? Being needed sounds like a burden to me.”

I thought about that question. Why does it matter?  Why does being needed feel so satisfying?  Why, when I think back to when my girls were little, all the snotty noses, dirty diapers, and tear-streaked faces, do I feel so tender towards my children and my old role?  Full and content.  Now, an emptiness.

“I don’t know . . . I guess it’s been my role for a while. Part of my identity. And I’m getting old. I feel I’m changing.”

“A reverse metamorphosis? . . . But look where you are!” He waved his arms up and around.

The smell of wet leaves filled my nostrils.  Tiny bugs flew in front of my face, and it was cooler in the woods.  Damp. No passing cars or voices.  It was a silence I had not heard in so long. The absence of noise like cell phone notifications, phone rings, the humming of air conditioning, distant trucks, beeping cars, sirens. I was finally away from it all.  I just was. I was simply existing.

He stepped closer, and a crooked grin spread on his face, enhancing the deep wrinkles in his cheeks.  A nakedness in his eyes made him look lost. I wanted to hug him.

He leaned into me and kissed my lips, mouth closed, his lips like peeling paint, like he needed to put on Vaseline. His scruff felt like steel wool against my sensitive skin. Still, I told myself, this is happening, I’m kissing another man.   I really wanted to be into it, aroused.   But I wasn’t.  It was just awkward, kissing this old, washed-up guy in the middle of nowhere.

My husband David didn’t even glance away from the T.V. or his phone when I undressed at night.  He hadn’t initiated sex in months.

“You are a beautiful woman. You ought to know that.”

He moved a strand of hair out of my eyes.  It all felt like a movie or a soap opera.  But a bad one that you fall asleep to.  I felt I could almost laugh aloud at the predictability of his comments.

“What a gift you are. What a nice surprise,” he continued.

I wanted to leave right then.  I felt nothing, but a little repulsion mixed with a tiny bit of flattery.

I forced a smile. “Thank you.”

“Are you okay?  You seem . . .  not.”

“No. I am. Just . . . I’m wondering if I should call home and check in.” I started to take my phone out of my leggings’ pocket.

“Well, you won’t get cell service here.” He laughed.

He stroked my cheek with his warm hands, and it comforted me, like everything was going to be okay.  He smelled surprisingly nice. Like soap.

He tried to kiss me again, but I flinched.

“What’s happening here?”

“I don’t know. Let’s just  . . . .  I’m just getting tired. That’s all.”

He sighed and shrugged. The birds chirped around us.  He looked up at the trees, the sky.

And then, with an abundance of energy and some resolve, he spoke with what sounded like forced good cheer.

“Okay, well, let’s pick berries.  You can take some home with you. A souvenir of your day. Your detour from the grind.”  He patted my arm.

I followed him. “Okay, great. Thanks.  Um. . . how do you know which berries are edible and not poisonous?”

“By the color and surrounding plants. These are okay,” he said and pointed to a nearby bush with small red berries.

I picked a berry off and put it in my mouth. It tasted tart, maybe a bit unripe.



He looked at me as if he was daring me to eat more. I picked a few more berries and popped them in my mouth.  He laughed aloud.

“What’s funny?” I asked.

“Life. This. You woke up today not knowing you’d be snacking on berries with a stranger and his dog in the woods. And you’re here. Aint life grand?”

We walked in silence for a few minutes. I followed his lead.  It was so quiet, nothing but the sound of our sneakers hitting the ground. Some birds chirping.

“So, do you like living out here?”

“Yes, I do. That’s why I’m here.” He turned around and smiled, but not kindly.

“It’s peaceful, free. Incredible really,” I said.

“It is, isn’t it?”  Something had shifted.

“Yeah, no burdens or responsibilities,” I added.

My stomach felt queasy, and I was dizzy. Sweat dripped down my forehead.  As we walked, I tried not to focus on the rumbling in my stomach, the nausea.  But it quickly became unbearable.

“I feel like I’m about to throw up. I’m going to find a private spot.” It was hard to get the words out.

“Ah, sure.  We’ll promise not to peek,” he said with a wink.

I ran ahead and vomited behind a bush.  The berries came up in a red paste.  Again. I fell to the ground.  I heard light steps approaching. The dog was running toward me, barking, like it was trying to tell me something. I wanted privacy and still felt nauseous.  I wasn’t yet done. But I pulled myself up and followed the dog.

Jon was laying off the path with his eyes closed, resting his hands against the back of his head.

“Peaceful out here,” he said. “Your stomach still bothering you?”  There was an edge to his voice.


“It’s probably just the berries. I thought they were okay, but I may have been wrong.”


He looked at me sharply.  “Don’t worry about it. Worst case, you’ll keep vomiting it out.  This will pass.”

“Shit.  You said the berries were fine!”

“I know. I thought so. They might be.  Now I’m a little tired. Just like you.”  He winked at me and smiled as he closed his eyes.

A hot wave of nausea hit me, and my face burned.  I needed a cold compress, like I used to give my girls when they were sick.  They would lay there with the washcloth on their heads as I held their hands.  So precious when they were little. Their skin and hair so soft, their eyes wide.  Couldn’t get enough of me. The light broke through the trees, and I noticed how beautiful it looked hitting the green leaf, how the leaf turned light, like a piece of lime.  I lay down and rested my head on a nearby tree stump to admire the light some more.  The light flickered in and out, and each time the leaves brightened up from the sun, so beautiful. I told myself to hold onto this moment and remember it. It kept flickering.  I drifted off to sleep, mesmerized by the lime.

Then footsteps on the fallen leaves near me.

“Sweet Dreams.”  It sounded like Jon.

Wait, I wanted to say.  But I was too weak to speak.

A dog barking, more lime, churning stomach. Dog barking louder. Louder. The footsteps moved further away.

My body was limp and the acid from the vomit burned my throat.  I could fall asleep and disappear, feel nothing forever. I lay there, my stomach gurgling, my heart pounding.  I stared at the limelight.  And then I smelled the tree stump against which my head rested.  Wood mixed with soil.  The smell of Time.

They say the rings in the bark of a tree tell its age.  The thick tree stump that supported my head had witnessed generations of people, their joys and woes. Thunderstorms and droughts. Its thickness was its strength. I had to get thicker. I was not done.  I willed my gurgling stomach to stop.  I had to stand up to get thicker.

First, I sat up and stared at the top of the trees to steady myself.  I couldn’t be too far into the woods.  I only had to get to the street, flag down a car, get reception on my phone to call for help.  My camera—I must have taken it off before laying down—was on the ground just out of my reach.  It suddenly appeared much larger than it had been, and its metal glittered in the sun. I leaned forward and grabbed it with all the strength I could muster.   I dragged myself up and shuffled to the direction of the barn. I worried Jon would see me, but it was the only way I knew to get out.  My legs moved ahead without asking for my permission. My reliable, thickening body would get me out of here. My legs that walked three miles a day, that drove me here and then biked here, my stomach that nourished me, my womb that carried my babies, my breasts that fed them, my hands that gripped and grabbed and wrote and held and carried and worked and played.  My body would get me out of here. Back to Time.

Tamar Gribetz’s short stories have appeared in The Hunger, Rumble Fish Quarterly, Poetica Magazine, and Manifest Station. Tamar teaches writing and advocacy at Pace Law, where she also serves as the Writing Specialist. She lives in Westchester, New York, where she is at work on other short fiction and a novel.


Have you ordered Thrust yet? 

“Blistering and visionary . . . This is the author’s best yet.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)


Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change