Tag Archives: Atlanta

Soup

By Maddie Fay

maybe it’s the way i was raised
or maybe it’s my cancer rising
but i only ever feed myself well when i am feeding someone else.
i mean,
my love language is soup.
which is why my whole house smells like curry, garlic, and ginger,
why over the course of a couple of days i spent twelve of the hours i had meant to spend sleeping
pressing blocks of tofu,
individually sauteing seven different types of vegetables in fresh herbs and aromatics,
and really testing the capacity of my roommate’s food processor.

I don’t remember when I first started believing that everything that feels good is either dangerous or morally wrong, or, most likely, both, but I imagine it started with the church.

I don’t remember when I first started believing that love looked less like a fairytale and more like my best friend falling asleep in my sweater with her head on my shoulder, so close I could smell my shampoo in her hair, but I imagine it started with her.

I once spent six months eating cold unseasoned green beans out of a can for almost every meal because suffering for suffering’s sake feels righteous when you believe that you deserve it. I once spent ten years pretending not to be a dyke for essentially the same reason.

And lord, am I ever. A dyke, I mean. A big, masculine dyke,
Like,
I have always been more king Kong than Fay wray.
Like,
I have always been taught to be afraid of what my hands can do.
I remember big fat dykes depicted as monstrous,
Only able to destroy,
And I wonder if that’s why there are so many of us who make things.

i keep a knife in my pocket most of the time because i have been backed into enough corners to be cautious,
but mostly,
i use it for fixing things and cutting fruit.
danger is contagious and i do what i can to stop it from making me dangerous,
I do not want to be a frightened and frightening thing.
but one time a woman i really liked tried to wake me from a nightmare,
and with ghosts still circling my head
Before I was awake or aware,
i punched her in the face.
When I opened my eyes, there was fear in hers and blood pouring from her nose and no amount of apologizing could unbreak what I had broken.
she kissed me and told me she still trusted me and it made me remember all the bloody noses that i had once forgiven with similar ease.
So i told her i was thinking of moving to oregon and that work was getting busy and that i would wash and return her tupperware before she left in case it was a while before i could see her again.
i hugged her at her car
and she held me for too long
like she didn’t even notice all the sharp things where my skin was meant to be.
i spent the next six months
bleeding venom and avoiding handshakes.

And I don’t mean to say that I am violent,
Because I am not,
I do not yell
Or degrade
Or intimidate,
I never sleep punched anyone else before or since,
I would never hit a friend or a lover while awake. I only wear spikes to make people think before they touch me, I am all flight or freeze. But violence is not the only way to hurt someone you love. Shutting down or running away can break a heart too and blood all looks the same when it’s drying on your hands no matter where it comes from. So now I try to protect the people I love from everything dangerous, including getting too close to me.

i keep a knife in my pocket most of the time,
but on days when my body remembers in the present tense,
i take a knife from the kitchen block instead.
i cut up limes and sweet potatoes,
drown out the sirens in my head
with bubbling water and simmering oil.

i’m still learning what love looks like,
and i am so tired of breaking,
and maybe this is why every time i see someone beautiful i fantasize about building them a house,
maybe this is why i make soup.

i am only easy to love
on the days when love is not a life raft.
i have never been afraid of fire
but i am frozen earth
full of ancient seeds,
already there are new green things pushing up through cracks in me
and i worry that if the ground were to thaw,
softer things might take root,
and i am afraid that anything delicate might not survive in me.

It’s not that I am wholly unable to love recklessly,
I run whole body into the ocean every time i see her,
emerge breathless and invisible and singing praises to nobody at all but the stars.
The last time I wanted to die, I took an overnight bus to the ocean. I held my breath and dipped my whole body beneath the surface of the sea,
tried to practice drowning but instead,
by mistake,
fell in love all over again with the waves and the moon and the stars,
All the beautiful things too big and too powerful for me to hurt accidentally.
I am a soft foolish thing,
All alive and longing.
I have loved fully
What I always knew I could not hold,
My tiny heart so full of moon and sea
And every mountain
That every place is now both a home
And not.

I am not as afraid as I used to be,
I have done a lot of therapy,
And maybe one day I will sleep next to somebody breakable without feeling guilty.
And I think maybe one day,
I will trust myself enough to love the softest things that love me in the fearless way I love the ocean.
And I don’t know when that day will be,
Or whether you will stick around long enough to find out,
but i do know that i want you always to be warm and full of good things,
so in the meantime,
If you want it,
I made you some soup.

Riddles

By Jack Walsh

The late afternoon sun hung low beyond the city walls, and the glare obscured the enormous thing crouched in the shadow of the gates – a thing that had suddenly become very shouty.

An inhuman voice bellowed, the force of it sending a cloud of dust blowing past the man on the road. “Step forward!” The traveller did not feel inclined to do so.

“I said step. Forward.”

The man swallowed, raised his arm to shield his eyes from the sun, and took a step.

“C’mon. Little bit more. Scooch on up.”

The man, squinting, took another half-step.

The thing sighed. “Zeus almighty, guy. Just come into the fucking shade already.”

The traveller crept up until the sun dipped behind the walls. And there, guarding the way in, was a creature more horrible than any he could have imagined. The cruelest eyes looked at him from within a woman’s face, and a long tongue flicked itself over blood-stained fangs. Below all this was the body of a lion, a sight rendered all the more grotesque by the incongruous addition of eagle’s wings. It was an unholy abomination, a magical being seemingly designed by committee.

The creature watched the man as he struggled to process her appearance.

“And don’t forget the tail,” she said, pointing behind her. “It’s a snake.”

Indeed, an asp raised up from behind the monster. “What? I wasn’t paying atten…Oh, hey. I’m the snake.”

“Hey…” said the traveller. “I’m Oedipus.”

“And I…” said the monster, pausing with a flourish as she spread her wings. She then shook her tail with annoyance.

“Sorry,” said the snake.

“And I…” the monster repeated as the snake added to the drama of the moment with a fearsome hisssssss, “am the Sphinx.”

Oedipus said nothing.

“The Sphinx!” she said again.

After a beat, the snake added, “hsssssssss?”

“Like in Egypt?” asked Oedipus.

“No, that’s like a totally other thing,” replied the Sphinx.

“So, you’re like a sphinx.”

“No, I’m the Sphinx!” she screamed, a small burst of flame coming from her throat. “Ow! Holy shit!…I didn’t even know I could do that! Fuck. Do you have any water?”

“Uh, I…I’m sorry. I don’t,” said Oedipus.

The Sphinx flexed her jaw a few times and, grimacing, smacked her lips with distaste. “Ugh, gross…So, you. I imagine you want to go into Thebes or something.”

“Um, yes, ma’am.”

“Then, you must answer…my riddle.”

A look of vague recognition crossed Oedipus’s face. “Oh. The riddle of the Sphinx.”

The Sphinx rolled her eyes. “Ugh, Ares, Apollo and Athena, yes, of course the riddle of the Sphinx.”

“Now, remind me of the deal with that,” said Oedipus

“If you get it right, you pass safely into the city of Thebes.”

Oedipus nodded. “Gotcha.”

“If you do not…” the Sphinx paused again. The snake hissed.

“I die,” Oedipus jumped in.

“Yes,” said the Sphinx, annoyed at the interruption. “Yes, you die. Horribly. Right here.”

“You can turn back, though,” she added. “And maybe I’ll let you run a while across the plain before I swoop from the heavens and devour you alive.”

“Very well,” said Oedipus.

“Very well what?” The Sphinx stutter-stepped with excitement. “You’re going to run for it?”

“I will answer your riddle.”

“Oh.” The Sphinx frowned. “I should warn you; no one’s ever gotten it right.”

“But I shall,” said Oedipus.

“But I shall,” muttered the Sphinx in a sing-songy tone as she reached under one massive wing and pulled out a laptop computer. “Okay. Let’s see here…” She opened it and typed a few keys.

“Shit. Hang on.” She tried again.

Oedipus politely feigned interest in the architecture of the city walls.

“Oh, duh. Caps lock,” said the Sphinx. She clicked the mouse and scrolled down for a moment. “Okay, where was…a ha. Here we go. Oh, you really are quite doomed.”

Oedipus exhaled and rubbed his sweaty palms on his tunic.

The Sphinx looked at him over the top of the monitor and began.

“Name a city…that does not have an “O” in it.”

Oedipus blinked. “Uh…”

“I bet you can’t!” the Sphinx gleefully interrupted.

Oedipus glanced past the Sphinx. “Um…” he coughed, ”Thebes?”

The Sphinx’s jaw dropped slightly, and then she looked back at the city behind her.

“Athens, also,” suggested Oedipus, helpfully.

The Sphinx scowled. “Okay,” she said, looking back at the laptop.

“Oooo, also, Atlantis, Sparta, Delphi…”

“OKAY!!” snapped the Sphinx. “Enough! Fuck. We’ll move on to the next one.”

“Wait, what?” asked Oedpius.

“The second riddle.”

“You just said there was a riddle.”

“No, there’re three.”

“Well, you didn’t say that.”

“Well, there are. Obviously. There are always three magical things. Three wishes. Three guesses of the goblin’s name. Three, I dunno, ghosts or whatever. Three riddles. Okay? I just have to find the next one.”

They were quiet for a moment until the Sphinx began to mutter. She tapped the keyboard angrily several times.

“Shit. I think my IT guy is doing updates right now.”

“In the middle of the day?” asked Oedipus.

“I know, right?” said the Sphinx.

“You should eat him.”

“Ha ha. I totally should.”

“Yeah.”

“Hmmm…”

Oedipus shuffled his feet. The Sphinx watched the screen. The snake hissed softly to himself.

After what felt like several minutes, the Sphinx spoke. “So, what brings you…What’d you say your name was?”

“Oedipus.”

“Right. What brings you to Thebes, Oedipus?”

“I’m here to see my girlfriend.”

“Ah, a special lady in town. Got a picture?”

Oedipus pulled up a photo on his iPhone and handed it to the Sphinx.

“Oh, cute,” said the Sphinx. “Although…”

“What?” asked Oedipus.

“Oh, nothing. It’s just that…you guys look a lot alike.”

“What?” Oedipus laughed. “I don’t know. I don’t really see it.”

“You don’t think so?” The Sphinx held the picture in line with Oedipus’s face and eyed the two. “I mean it’s almost like she could be your sister. Or your moth…”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“Well, y’know how they say,” said Oedipus, taking the phone. “Couples kinda start to resemble each other.”

“Do they say that?” asked the Sphinx. “Hmmm. I thought that was about dogs and owne…oh, hey! Here we go. Next riddle.” She looked at the laptop, and began to read.

“I truly believe that Cyclops is the son of our lord, Poseidon, God of the sea…”

Oedipus waited for more.

“I bet this won’t get many shares. Are you brave enough to share this?” asked the Sphinx.

Oedipus glanced at the Snake, who gave him a look that suggested that if he had shoulders, he would shrug them.

“Tick tock,” said the Sphinx.

Oedipus looked at her. “Wha…?”

“Are you brave enough to share this?!” demanded the Sphinx.

“Y…Yes?” offered Oedipus.

The Sphinx smacked the side of the computer. “Gods-dammit, you are really good at this!”

Oedipus cleared his throat in a way that he hoped seemed modest.

“But I shall feast on your entrails, yet!” shrieked the Sphinx. “I shall drink your blood and pluck your heart from your che..oh, shit. Here’s a good one.”

The Sphinx’s eyes moved back and forth over the screen. Oedipus couldn’t help but notice that she silently mouthed the words when she read.

After a moment, the Sphinx pushed the screen partway down and looked at him. “You have been a worthy challenger…”

“Oedipus,” he said.

“Right. A worthy challenger, Oedipus,” the Sphinx continued, “but you will soon learn that mortals were not meant to match wits with the scions of Olympus.”

The Sphinx opened the laptop again.

“There is a creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening,” she said.

Oedipus opened his mouth to reply but the Sphinx continued. “This creature is man. Like if you agree.”

Oedipus blinked. “I’m sorry, what?”

“99% will get this wrong!” added the Sphinx.

“I..” began Oedipus and then looked at the snake again, who had clearly lost interest at this point.

“Like if you agree!” shouted the Sphinx.

With some confused hesitation, Oedipus forced a queasy smile and raised his hand in a thumbs-up gesture.

The Sphinx let out a horrific wail, beating her mighty wings and thrashing her tail furiously. “Aaaaaaaa!” said the snake. At the edges of the surrounding plains, thunder boomed. The Sphinx once again fixed her fierce eyes upon Oedipus. He braced himself.

“Okay, well, enjoy Thebes,” said the Sphinx while clicking the mousepad. “The place right inside the gate has killer moussaka, just FYI.”

“Oh…” said Oedipus. “Cool.”

“Actually,” the Sphinx mused, “I could really go for some, now that I’m thinking about it.”

“Aren’t you, I don’t know,” said Oedipus. “Aren’t you supposed to die now that I solved your riddles?”

“Hmm? Oh, no, I don’t think so.”

“I thought maybe you were going to throw yourself off a cliff or something.”

“No,” said the Sphinx. “I mean, I have wings. So. That would be weird. Anyway, you wanna grab a bite? They’ve got WiFi. I have other things I could ask you for fun. Wanna find out what character from the Iliad you are?”

Oedipus eased past the Sphinx, who was making no real effort to move out of the way. “Oh, um, thanks. But, I need to get going and see my mom…I mean, my girlfriend! Haha that was crazy.”

“Mmmm,” said the Sphinx, offering no further comment aside from a raised eyebrow as she turned her attention back to the internet.

fearless

By Jeremy Maxwell

for Amy Tecosky

“Let’s go to Nike,” Sydney says, and starts putting on her shoes. She doesn’t bother with socks because the stick-poke on her leg is not even an hour old, much too fresh for fabric. Fraggle is already getting ready to do another one on somebody else, laying all the shit out on the table and taking giant slugs of whiskey straight out of the bottle. Yesterday he sat in the kitchen floor and did all the veins in his feet, turning them into tree roots twining up his legs. Blood and ink all over the linoleum, it looked like a fucking murder scene by the time she made him quit.

The radio is up loud and when she finishes with her shoes she stands up and turns it off, stops and looks around. Fraggle glances over at her in the new quiet and shrugs, drops everything but the bottle and heads for the door. Chad and Stacy are making out on the futon in the corner and Sydney kicks it as she walks by. They pull their faces apart and Stacy starts messing with her hair and straightening her clothes.

“Come on, Jupiter, get in the car,” Sydney says, and the giant dog lifts his head up off the couch. His ears twitch forward and that’s about it. Chad and Stacy get up and follow Fraggle out of the apartment, hands already all over each other again. “Jupe. Come on,” Sydney repeats and the dog lumbers down off the couch and stretches hard into his front legs. He yawns and shakes his head and follows everyone out the door.

I’m hunched over the coffee table rolling more joints, even though there are already a dozen laying in front of me. I take a drag from the one in my mouth and call behind her as she disappears outside. “Nike? Y’all can barely even wear shoes,” I holler after them. No one listens or cares and I get up and start sticking joints in my pockets. “Well goddamn, hang on,” I say, and hurry to catch up.

***

Thunder Kiss ’65 is playing in the car and as soon as it’s done, Sydney starts it over. She is yelling at Stacy in the backseat and it’s hard to tell if she’s pissed or just wants to make sure Stacy can hear but either way it sounds like she’s having a shouting match with Rob Zombie. “Look,” she says, “when you hit him there’s only three things he can do.” Fraggle swerves around another hole in the road and everybody goes leaning into each other and then back again when he corrects the wheel. The dog is taking up more space than anyone and I try to push him over but it’s no use and I go back to listening to Sydney.

Chad and Stacy are still pressed hard together for no reason and Sydney turns full around in the front seat. I pull out a joint and light it and hand it to her as Fraggle drops the gear and starts the drive up the mountain. We aren’t going to be able to go much further in the car but there’s a place to pull over and park after the first bend. Sydney hits the joint and blows the smoke in Stacy’s face. Stacy looks away from Chad and when she sees the look Sydney’s giving her, she tries to scoot away from him, pulls her hands out of his lap and starts straightening her hair and clothes.

“Yeah, sis,” Stacy says. “Three things.” Chad starts to reach for the joint but Sydney doesn’t even glance at him and hands it to Fraggle instead. He billows smoke against the dashboard as he rounds the bend, finds the cut and shuts off the car. The radio dies when he opens the door but Sydney’s volume doesn’t change. Fraggle gets out with the bottle and takes a long slug, opens the back door for Jupiter to jump out. The dog doesn’t move, even when I start pushing on him.

“He can lash out,” Sydney yells. “He can run. Or he can freeze.” She gets out and leans back down into the car, face to face in the backseat with Chad. “Come on, Jupiter,” she says, and the drop in volume and tone make it clear she wasn’t just yelling over the radio. She glares at Chad from inches away as the giant dog jumps down into the dirt on the other side. He immediately hikes a leg and pisses on the tire. I wait for him to get done before I get out.

Fraggle has already started up the road with the joint so I light another one and climb out of the car.

“That’s not even true, Syd,” I say. “There’s all kinds of shit he can do.” She doesn’t say anything, just pulls her head out of the backseat and scowls at me over the roof, so I keep talking. “He could pull out a weapon.” She keeps glaring, and I go on. “He could fall down and have a seizure. Hell, he could even,” I say, and she cuts me off.

“Are you done?” she growls and steps out of the way so Chad and Stacy can finally get out. They stretch in the sun and Sydney slams the door and walks over to me, reaching for the joint. I hit it again and blow the smoke in her face. “It was anecdotal, you fucking assmonkey,” she says and punches me in the arm. I don’t fight or fly or freeze, I just start laughing and hand her the joint as Jupiter follows us up the road, all of us lagging behind Fraggle and the bottle.

***

Nike Missile Site LA-94 sits on top of a mountain off Sand Canyon Road in the LA National Forest. By the time we get up there Jupiter is panting full out like he might quit and lay down any minute, but as soon as he sees the concrete pad he trots right over and starts drinking from the puddle of water pooled in the corner on the far side.

“When’s the last time it rained, you reckon,” I say, and Sydney stops on the path and calls the dog.

“Jupe, that’s probably radioactive,” she says, “get over here,” and the dog comes panting back across the pad. His tail wags when Sydney starts to move again. She scratches his giant head and he falls in behind her. “Some kids died up here, you know,” she says to me as I fumble around in my pocket for another joint. I find a bent one and spend a second getting it straight before I light it. “Well, back there on the road,” she says. “Prom night.”

“They did not,” I say, and hand her the joint. Chad and Stacy are over by the radar station, leaning up against the wall. They’re starting to get handsy again and even though Sydney’s squinting into the sun she rolls her eyes hard enough for me to see.

“They damn sure did,” she says. “They went to my high school. They were headed up here to smoke pot or make out or whatever kids do after prom. I think they were drunk,” she says, and looks away from Stacy, finds Fraggle out at the edge of the cliff, drinking hard from the upturned bottle. We start to make our way over to him, passing the joint back and forth while she tells me about the ghost that haunts the road we came up, how her hair is flying out on all sides, her face a ruin of made up flesh. How she moves up and down the road trying to find help for her friends. “She doesn’t walk,” Sydney says, “she just floats above the ground and lunges at you with outstretched arms.”

“Tell me you don’t believe this shit,” I say, and Sydney starts to laugh.

“Do you believe there used to be nukes right here under our feet? You better believe I fucking believe it.”

I look over my shoulder for a girl in a floating prom dress, but she’s not there, just some dude coming up over the edge of the hill, carrying a canvas bag. Sydney and Jupiter lope up to Fraggle, standing there in his bare feet, every vein of them tattooed with India ink. She takes the bottle from him and turns it up, finishes it off in one smooth gulp.

“Jesus,” Fraggle says. “I couldn’t of poured it out in the sink that fast.” He reaches in his pocket and pulls out a flask as I hurry over. The sky stretches out in front of us forever, and I wish I wasn’t out of breath.

“You better call your sister,” I say as Jupiter watches me pant, and Sydney turns around. She looks behind me and sees the guy with the bag, takes a few steps back toward the radar station.

“Stacy. Get over here,” she yells, and Stacy pushes Chad away and starts to straighten her hair and clothes. “Right now, Stacy,” Sydney shouts, and Chad finally notices the man who has joined us on the mountain. They leave the building and come lurching across the concrete pad at a trot.

The guy doesn’t pay any attention to us, just walks over to the edge of the cliff on the opposite side. He’s wearing spandex pants and he kneels and puts the bag on the ground. Once he has it open, he starts digging around inside. Sydney looks ready to charge him and knock his ass off the side of the mountain, but all he’s pulling out is a bunch of long poles and an even bigger bunch of fabric.

“Is this guy pitching a fucking tent up here?” Fraggle says, as we watch the guy start putting it all together. He hands me the flask and I take a long pull.

“I’m pitching a tent up here, if you know what I’m saying,” Chad says, and Sydney turns around and punches him in the stomach. His face turns red and you can almost see the steam shoot out his ears as he doubles over and freezes.

“That’s too flat to be a tent,” I say, handing the flask back to Fraggle. “Shaped all wrong, too.”

“Well what is it then,” Sydney says as Stacy moves to comfort Chad. He shrugs her off and steps back, sulking, reaching for the flask. Fraggle twists the cap on and puts it back in his pocket.

“You guys are assholes,” Chad says.

“That’s right,” Sydney says. “Keep your fucking hands off my sister.”

“Guys,” Stacy says. “Look.” Everyone stops and looks at her, follows her outstretched hand. “It’s a fucking hang-glider,” she says, pointing.

The guy steps into it and starts getting his hands set as the group of us goes stock still. We wait there a moment with the silence fraught around us, the city too far away to hear. He takes a couple of steps forward and launches himself like a missile off the mountain.

“Holy shit,” Fraggle yells, and all of us go running over to the other side of the cliff. Jupiter jumps and barks, and Sydney has to grab his collar to make sure the giant dog doesn’t go tumbling over the edge. “A fucking hang-glider,” Fraggle says, and pulls out the flask and hands it to Chad. I dig around for the last joint and we get it going, fearless, staring after the man as he sails ever smaller through the Santa Clarita sky.

Remnants of a Smoldering Fire

By Cat Taylor

Twirling in my grandmother’s kitchen
To the sound of bluegrass
And the smell of something vaguely
Apple Cinnamon
I declare myself
A princess
She whirled around
Hand on hip
Looked at me
And said sharply that NO,
In this family, we are witches
And I called myself a Good Witch
And I wonder
If I had been a bit older
And she a bit more tired
If she would have told me how
Redundant that is

My family is full of witches
And it has been so watered down
So distilled that
Once it reached me
The only thing left
Was the memory
Of the fire

Witches were not burned for being witches
They were burned for being women
And I think
There might be a metaphor
Waiting to be picked from their ashes
About women and fire
Or powerful women, and men’s fear of them

My grandmother told me
When I brought her the 2nd bumblebee
That day
To keep this fire
And she taught me
That this fire in the belly
In the brain
Can be the gentlest sort of thing

And yesterday
When I looked in the mirror
I saw her eyes
And what a joy it is
To see that this witch’s fire
No longer burns you
Or puts you on trial
But holds you
Keeps you safe

And a week ago a wasp got caught in my bedroom
And as I held her
Gingerly
In a cup with a half-written poem below her
I marveled
At the way her fire kept her alive
And fighting
And how my fire kept me alive
And fighting

But this is not just a self-reflection
This is a call to arms
That when you feel that fire
In your belly
In your brain
That restlessness
And quiet displeasure with the world
Remember
Your ancestors were witches
Or at least
Strong women
And I think that is mostly the same thing
There is so much light
To be spread with your fire
But also, so much
That needs to be burnt down
Call it a rampage
Or a reclamation
Or a controlled burn but
Use it, passionately
To spite the ones
Who used it against your mothers so long ago
But please
Don’t forget
That your fire
Is the most witchy, gentle thing
And you can use it
However you damn well please

A Love Letter from My Dead Name

By Jordyn King

Dear Jordyn,
It is June 29th.
My 23rd birthday, and your first.
And though you know who I am
I have no idea who you are just yet;
That’s okay, though. Part of the beauty of shedding an identity
is the ability to craft a new one, and
I have a guess about the beautiful
person you’ll become.
Now, I have some things to ask you,
but first and foremost,
I want to congratulate us or…
you.
You searched for your name for a full year,
and I think you found the one tailor made for you.
It is strange to think we are the same person, but this point,
our birthday, marks a completely new chapter in your life
So Congratulations, Jordyn. Truly.

I want to make a couple requests of you,
if you’ll allow me.
You don’t need to heed them all,
but I think it’s gonna help.

1: I ask that you remember me.
It’s hard for me to accept that I’ll be gone forever,
and I know you’ll do great things without me holding you back, but still,
I ask that you keep a part of me in the most secret chambers of your heart
So that when the road seems hardest, you might remember who we once were
and celebrate how far you’ve come, and how much further you can still go.

2: I ask you to forgive me my shortcomings:
I know they’ll probably follow you,
but I want it stated that my sins are not yours. Let your first breaths be pure
and free of guilt about my past.
I will carry those to my grave for you

3: I ask that you keep on fighting.
I know you will; it’s part of who I became and, therefore, part of who you’ve always been. But for the sake of the people
we both love, I want you to hold your fist high,
and fight like you have nothing left to lose.

4: Love everyone. Love them fiercely, and without hesitation or remorse.
I was never really known for regret, except once…remember that one,
to remind you of the consequences, and then love everyone anyways.
Love them through heartbreak and through bad times and falling outs.
Love them always, and love them the way I love being you.

5: Finally, I ask that you love yourself.
You are the future we didn’t think would be possible,
the person that we never thought we’d live to be when we were younger.
Remember to love yourself,
and be kind to yourself.
And remember that you made it
for all of us.
So happy birthday Jordyn.

Forever in your heart,
[REDACTED] Your Dead Name

N64

By Mauree Culberson

Dear Daddy,

I hope you are enjoying Thanksgiving. I bet you can have all the dairy you want in the afterlife and the salt crystals fall from the sky like snow on your dinner plate, and no one tells you that’s too much.

I was sitting watching some awful film in the living room with our relatives, and I overheard mom and sister asking Andrew if he’d ever carved a turkey before. It was a stupid question or, at bare minimum, rhetorical. Of course he’s never done it. You have always carved the turkey.

It’s just another example of a hole left in the family without you in it. The gunmen stole you from us. They left holes in you that ripped through the seal of our family, leaving us ragged, like a scorched kitchen towel from some long-forgotten mishap.

This Thanksgiving lacked what you provided. No one was there to egg on rivalries or differences of opinions between relatives for the amusement of the rest of us. No one was called out for their exaggerated claims to shame the unreliable narrators who tell you parts of their dramatic life stories. No one complained too loudly that my sister only made fourteen desserts. No one challenged the decades-old tradition of me doing almost no cooking whatsoever. (I ‘stir up’ cornbread from scratch and then crumble that and other breads for the dressing. Then I go back to doing nothing. Little sisterhood has its privileges.)

There was no one to command all the males to do all the heavy lifting. There was no one to pack the car with our luggage the night before we left or to insist we don’t bring it in ourselves. No one handled trash and recycling without being asked. No one conducted the ‘now what are we watching’ TV council. No one was there to hear my aunts yell, ‘Shut up, Maurice,’ when they’d had enough of being teased. No one rolled their eyes when discussing who was invited to drop by and who was told to …. ‘Have a blessed holiday.’ No one lamented all my mother’s good deeds that go unthanked.

I slept next to mommy in your spot. Mom still sleeps neatly on her side of the bed. Your reading glasses are still there. There’s an opened pack of gum which I bet was yours still sitting on your dresser. Some of your mail is there, next to your Sunday school book. I laid there and cried. I whispered to my sleeping mother, while looking down at your slippers which are still on the floor on your side of the bed, “Mommy, I want my daddy back.” That was dumb, I know. I just long for the days when my mother could fix anything. She could fix a toy, break a fever, make broccoli taste good somehow, and soothe me to sleep. She can’t fix this broken heart, though.

In the morning, I looked in your closet that you share with mommy. All your suits are pressed. Your best suits remain in plastic … minus one, the one you’re wearing right now. Your ties are in color order and displayed for easy selection. I put my feet in your shoes, like I did when I was smaller, and flopped around a bit. I remember putting my feet on top of yours as we danced around once.

When I took a shower, many of your toiletries were missing. It’s sensible, I reminded myself. Yet I felt sad until I went looking for toothpaste and found it all neatly put under the sink. When I stood up, I saw your bathrobe still hanging on your hook on the back of the bathroom door.

I stepped out to the vanity to do my hair. I wondered and couldn’t resist opening the drawers on your side. The bottom drawers contained clean, perfectly folded white underwear, undershirts, socks paired and separated in white black and then all other colors. The top drawer hid an item I’d never thought I’d see again. I saw your phone.

Your phone is way outdated but bright red because black phones are hard to find in the dark, you’d said. Sometimes you’d forget to take it with you. I used to think this was rebellion against  technology in general but I later came to realize that a built-in GPS and calculator was an intellectual affront to an accountant who lived in the same city for 60 years. Nestled next to it was the car charger. That’s where the gunmen found you, in the car. The car is now back in the garage. No one drives it, it just takes up its usual space.

For a few glorious moments, I imagined you were just out of town and traveling light. I smelled your deodorant and your cologne. I fake yelled back at you complaining that my showers are so long they take up all the hot water. I danced around the room a bit putting my mother’s many brooches to my chest, as if I’m trying them on at a store. I get carried away and bump the dresser holding one of the brooches in my hair, when a card slips out that’s tucked next to a jewelry box. I open my mouth to fake sassy reply ‘Nothing is broken, geez!’ to your usual grumble when there’s an unexpected noise … but I’m deflated by the piercing words on the pointy white index card.

You’re not here.

That realization coats me thickly like giblet gravy. My relaxed shoulders tense. I close the drawers and put your slippers away back where I found them. I take off your robe and pull the plastic covers back down on your suits. I put back the piece of gum I took out of the pack on your nightstand. My mom left or put all these things this way. I better put them back before one of y’all catches me and … before mom catches me. It could get weird, or she could get angry. Discussing our innermost feelings is prohibited per the roaring lion standing firmly atop a box securely locked, marked ‘Feelings, etc.” on our family crest. Plus, if she cries, I’ll cry too, but I won’t be able to stop.

The white index card asked for an opinion on the care of your gravestone and burial plot.

You’re not out of town. You’re not complaining about my shower time, or the bumping noise, nor are you carving the turkey. I’m not a little girl who snuck into her parents room to play dress-up.

You’re not here.

You’re at plot N64 in a hole in the ground. All that is displaced in the soil is nothing to what has been displaced in me. I cannot patch these holes. We will not be whole again, this family, not like we were.

I spotted a pair of your socks on the floor. I’d let them escape the drawers, but, when I went to put them back, I opened the wrong drawer first. I opened the undershirt drawer a bit wider than before, and I found bags and bags of them. I lost it. My mouth covered on my knees, and I heaved, letting gigantic tears bombard the plastic bags.

You seemed … we seemed like we didn’t love each other sometimes. We fought so much. You could be harsh and angry, and so could I towards you. You were stubborn and gave me that stubborn quality that has served me well.

In those plastic bags were decades’ worth of Father’s Day and birthday cards. Some were on decaying newsprint with dashed lines clearly made by tiny hands. In the bottom, the bags had collected confetti, glitter, ribbons, macaroni pieces and other bits from the temporary medium of cards. Bunches of paper scrawled on in purple ink, pencil, drawn on hearts, scriptures and glued-on cotton balls kept tucked away but kept in preservation and reverence.

Encased plainly and put in the drawer, buried memories lie yet unmarked. That drawer has no holes. It is full.

Your BabyGirl (still),

Mo

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The Undead Have No Dignity

By Jessica Nettles

Lily stood at the weathered wooden door of what had been Marvis-Dorna funeral parlor back in the day. She smoothed the skirt of her black dress and adjusted her hat and veil with her gloved hands. The dress was uncomfortable and hot, not one you’d wear on a late spring afternoon in Alabama, but it was the only one she owned. Had Mary Kat, her daughter, still been with her, she’d have teased Lily about clinging to traditions that no longer mattered to anyone else in town. She wore the dress, hat, and veil to assure herself that she was respecting Edwin like a good Southern wife would. Rules may have changed when folks started going off, but that didn’t mean she had to.

A tear rolled down one cheek, and she reached into her small black purse and pulled out one of Edwin’s handkerchiefs she’d nabbed before she left to make this final step in the ritual of the dead. Her family had always said she was a bit cold, but that wasn’t true. After people started going off, grief was something that just held her back from helping others, so she shut it away altogether. Can’t be strong if you’re a blubbering mess. Loving Edwin meant being strong once again. She closed her eyes, took a breath, and knocked. The door opened.

“Ah, Miss Lily, come right on in, we’ve been expecting you,” said The Coroner. He was wearing an immaculate black suit with a matching black tie, as was the custom. His hair was slicked back like an old-time Baptist preacher’s.

The Coroner took her arm and led her to an office, which was fine by her since her arthritis was acting up something fierce since Edwin’s fall in the kitchen only an hour or so before. Even though she’d taken one of her pills, her hips and feet were aching. She sat down in a floral wing chair while he moved behind his polished teak desk.

“Would you care for some coffee or tea?” he asked with a gentle smile.

“Iced tea? Oh, I’d sure like some,” she answered.

The Coroner rang a tiny silver bell. A girl in a clean apron and a black dress brought in a tray holding a sweating tea pitcher decorated with blue and purple mophead hydrangeas like the ones in full bloom by Lily’s porch and two tall glasses filled with ice cubes. She smelled of gardenia and walked with a small shuffle. Lily studied the girl’s pockmarked face. The last of the children went off last year after a wicked wave of chicken pox, a disease once eradicated. Was that the Dickerson girl? Maybe not.

The ice clinked in the glasses as The Coroner stood, took the tray from the girl, and nodded for her to leave. She hissed softly through her bared teeth as she stood, hands still extended. The Coroner snapped his fingers right at her nose, and her hiss stopped short.

“You may leave now, Rose,” he said.

Rose Dickerson. I was right, thought Lily. She remembered when the family had Rose in lockdown before the little thing had gone off. The girl was the last of the chicken pox group. Folk were chattering for weeks after, saying that maybe whatever caused the going off was moving on. Lily had almost believed this was a possibility, and then a whole cluster of folk who lived by the depot at the edge of The Community, went off on Saturday afternoon for no good reason.

The girl’s pox-scarred arms dropped to her sides. She walked right into the doorframe, backed up and did it again. The Coroner set the tray on a serving table next to Lily’s seat. He approached the girl from behind and set her in front of the door, patting her back as she exited.

“Rose is still … in training,” he said, approaching Lily, who fidgeted with her hat, trying not to stare. “Shall I pour?”

“Please,” Lily replied, charmed that she could hear music in the background. It was a song from back in the day, but she couldn’t remember the name of it. Canned music was a luxury these days.

She took the cool glass of tea and sipped it, pleased that The Coroner took his duties seriously. She considered what she’d written in his job description after his role was deemed necessary in the changing environment.

Civility is a skill The Coroner must have since he will deal with the citizens of The Community daily.”

Not only had this particular Coroner been civil, but he’d also proved to be proactive in ways they’d not dreamed of three years ago. He brought changes that, at least in her observations, had made The Community a better place for everyone, including the Gone-Off. As she sipped iced tea, which was perfect in the teeth-cracking way tea was at Homecoming dinners when preachers were still sent here and church was still a thing, The Coroner sat back down, folded his hands, and smiled at her.

“My Edwin. He passed earlier, but he ain’t gone off yet,” Lily said. “I’m sure you know that.” She knew what he was going to say but felt like she needed to speak the words anyway.

Edwin hadn’t ever liked the way this was done, but she’d told him it was the best they could manage considering the way things had gone, and it was better than folks doing things that would worsen their predicament. He’d voted against the changes suggested by The Coroner after he was hired, but she’d stood with The Council, especially since she was the head at the time.  That one thing had become the one bone of contention between her and Edwin till an hour or so ago. As much as she knew that what The Coroner did was the best thing for all involved, for some reason losing Edwin was harder than she’d dreamed it would be.

The Coroner frowned and said, “We can’t take him if … “

She hung her head and said in a whisper, “If he ain’t gone off.” She took a sip of the iced tea, letting it run down her throat. Then she asked, “What if he didn’t want you takin’ him?” She knew she’d gone off script now but didn’t much care what The Coroner thought about that. She knew what he’d say. It was law.

“Mrs. Smith, you of all people should understand how this works.”

She nodded, and said, “But he never wanted all this.”

“None of us did, Lily,” responded The Coroner. In another time, folk might think he was one of those Baptist evangelists who did tent revivals in August.

He moved from behind the large, shiny desk and pulled a chair up next to her. Then he took her hand in his own. Even through her gloves, his hands were like ice and made her own hands ache the way the cold from Edwin’s body had when she’d moved him earlier.

“You and The Council wrote the rules for a reason. Making exceptions wouldn’t serve The Community,” he said.

She pulled her hands away, rubbing them.

“Can’t I keep him at the house? I need the help. We got no kin left to help. He won’t be any trouble, I promise,” she asked.

“The entire community needs him. Keeping him home is selfish, Miss Lily,” he said.

The grief she’d packed away over the last three years, flushed over her and took her off guard. This wasn’t the first going off she’d attended to, but of all of them, this was the worst. She started gasping and tears flowed down her cheeks. She was losing Edwin twice. She’d been able to manage herself better when Mary Kat went off by pretending her girl had gone off to Auburn for school again. This time, pretending wasn’t an option and besides, Edwin deserved to have his wishes respected after all he’d had to accept the last few years. She dabbed her wet cheeks with Edwin’s monogrammed handkerchief as she fought to regain some self-control.

“I just want to give him some dignity,” she whispered.

“And he will be treated with the utmost in dignity just like your Mary Kat and all the rest. He’ll be of service to The Community, just like he’s always been.”

“So if something … like a tooth or somethin’ falls off while you’re workin’ on my Edwin, could you save it for me?” she asked.

He shook his head but snickered. “No, ma’am. Unfortunately, you know we cannot allow keepsakes.”

Lily nodded and took one last sip of tea, which soothed her. Business concluded, The Coroner stood. As he guided her to the door, he picked up the tablet off his desk. Lily could see the screen, which was filled small photographs of members of The Community. Lily could see Edwin’s photo flashing red.

The Coroner tapped his tablet and said, “I can see that you locked Edwin down. That’s excellent. Now, you just go on home. You wouldn’t want to miss the grand event.”

She looked up at him and said, “Edwin won’t be hurt?”

“I promise.”

Lily saw little comfort in this promise. The Coroner guided her by the elbow to the front door and bid his goodbye as she stepped out. The sky faded from fuchsia to deep azure dotted with pale clouds as she walked down the as-of-yet unlit street back to her house. By this time, she and Edwin would have had supper and been sitting outside on the porch, watching the sunset. It was one of her favorite times of the day because they would sip the last of the tea from supper, have dessert, and talk about the day. Or they would reminisce about the days before the wall when they could go to the movies or go to the famous fish fries at Screamer Church nearby. Sometimes Edwin would sing hymns with her, and the neighbors would come and sing too. After the wall, the hymn singing happened less and less, as they seemed pointless to most of their friends. Edwin would still sing them once in a while, especially at sunset. Now Lily wasn’t sure she could handle a sunset without his growly voice.

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As she passed her neighbors’ houses, she could see some of them eating supper at picnic tables in their back yards. It was cooler to eat outside this time of year, especially for those without air conditioning. A few sat out on the porch and waved as she got closer to her own home. Now that they’d seen her in the black dress, it wouldn’t be long till everyone knew one of the elders had passed. She imagined that some of the men would be taking bets on when Edwin would go off even before she began eating her own supper.

The house was quiet and shadowy when she unlocked the door. She was used to Edwin listening to the local radio reports in the evenings before supper, so the silence emphasized the emptiness of the house, which echoed through her. As she walked by the radio, she turned it on. The warm light of the console chased away the darkness spreading through the living room, and the voice of Chuck Landers from down by Screamer filled the air as he reported the safest parts of the lake to fish. At least she could pretend that Edwin was with her for now.

Lavender-scented Pine Sol made the entire house smell like Friday cleaning day even though it was only Tuesday and she’d only scrubbed the kitchen floor and counter where Edwin had fallen hours before. She touched the yellowing page touting the rules of The Community posted on the pantry door and thanked the Great Whosit that she’d done her best to follow the law. She also gave thanks that Edwin hadn’t gone off and tried to take a hunk out of her arm – something The Coroner would fix – while she bathed his body to prep him for the lockdown room.

The law was for the best, but right now she hated every part of it. Edwin was right when he voted against this new order, and she knew, if he could, he’d be shaking his head and saying he told her so. He’d also tell her she’d done her best and that he couldn’t criticize that.

She remembered how deaths were handled before the wall was put up and The Coroner came to town. Sometimes caskets would be open so that everyone could take a last look at the deceased, all made up, dressed up, serene in his or her repose. They’d be surrounded by family, friends, onlookers, and a mountain of flowers in all shapes and forms. People would bring food to the family of the deceased, sit around and tell stories after gathering at the church to tell everyone how wonderful the person who passed had been in life. She tried to remember the last one of these affairs she’d attended. Jo-Jo Walsh. It had been a quiet affair at the funeral home where The Coroner now lived. Quiet until Jo-Jo sat up and bit Reverend Jackson as he stood for the benediction.

After that, funerals weren’t considered exactly practical by The Community. Death could no longer be a sentimental moment. As she ate her supper and listened to Mimi Landers, Chuck’s wife and co-owner of WSCR, talk about the latest murder at the Screamer Hardees, she mourned those days as much as Edwin’s passing. After she joined The Committee, she had to be strong. No more weeping. The Coroner was right. Her request to keep any part of her husband from The Community was selfish and so was any sentimentality she may feel about Edwin’s death.

She had no time or option to go to pieces or sit with friends and remember Edwin’s kindness and the happy moments they’d shared over the last fifty years. Instead, her memories of his last moments would include how she grumbled as she dragged his death-weighted body from the tub to the lock down room, knowing that if he went off, she’d be gone too.

When people started going off after they died, the living had to take steps to take care of them before the town suffered the fate of other nearby towns. At first, Lily remembered voting to turn people out on the far side of the lake in what used to be Comer. The Council figured that they could keep them out of town with one of those invisible electric fences till they could figure out how to control things better.

That didn’t work. Electric fences worked for dogs and horses, but not for those gone off.

The dead returned home. Once that happened, there was an emergency vote. The Council got all the men together and they first built the wall around town The Community. Then they required lock-down rooms in every home. There were gatherings to help build the lock-down rooms each weekend all that first year or so. The ladies would put out a spread of food at the community center and the menfolk would work till they connected the room to the grid at what was the funeral home.

She could see part of the high metal wall from her light green porch glider, where she sipped on a glass of sweet tea and watched the moon begin to rise and cast a silver glint on the pines on the other side of the fence. A slight breeze blew, and she heard the rustling of her pink and blue hydrangea, which was in full bloom. The delicate scent of sweet olive wafted past, and Lily breathed it in. At least some things were evergreen, she thought to herself.

In the gloaming, Lily could see her oldest friend, Mary-Walton, wearing her cat-eye glasses, which glinted silver-purple in the brightening moonlight. Her curly silver hair made her look like she had a halo around her head.

“I brought y’all a pie,” she called to Lily.

“Mary-Walton, he’s passed,” Lily said.

Her friend paused halfway up the walk. “Oh my Lord, Lily! You shoulda called me! Has he Gone-Off yet?”

“Not yet,” Lily said.

Setting the pie down on the porch rail, Mary-Walton joined Lily on the glider. She pushed her foot forward to start a little rocking movement. Lily smiled at the comfort it brought her but said nothing because there was nothing to be said. Her friend understood, and they sat together for a spell. One street light fluttered at the corner down by Mary-Walton’s house, and the radio had gone fuzzy in the background. A white truck marked with a large blue C rolled by. The back of the truck was filled with hoes and baskets of ripe tomatoes. Fred Whitmore, one of the Community farmers, waved from the driver’s seat. There was groaning coming from the trailer it pulled behind it. Both women waved at Fred because that was part of porch sitting and it was just plain polite.

“Edwin’s going to a better place, Lil’,” Mary-Walton said.

“I want to believe that,” Lily said. A tear rolled down her cheek. Her friend looked surprised but pulled out a tissue from her flour-powdered apron.

“It’s better than turning him loose,” she said.

Lily patted Mary-Walton’s hand and said, “You mean turning him out.”

“You wouldn’t want him comin’ back after you.”

“He said to me that he didn’t want to go this way. Ain’t his wants important?” said Lily.

Mary-Walton frowned and said, “You wrote the laws, you know.”

Lily nodded. She’d wrote the rules with The Council. They’d all thought this would be over after a spell. The laws were meant to take care of everyone, even those who’d gone off.

“If there weren’t laws, we’d have to shoot ‘em all. You coulda shot him instead.”

“Yes. I could have,” said Lily.

When the Coroner offered to upcycle the gone-over, The Council immediately voted and approved the motion. No one discussed how he would do this because the idea would serve The Community in a positive way and keep people from having to shoot their kin.

The green light next to the kitchen door began to flash. Lily looked over at Mary-Walton.

“Well, I guess it’s time.”

“Well, I guess it is.”

After just a few minutes, a white panel van bearing the familiar blue C arrived. Two men got out. One had a noose stick, and the other wore a shoulder holster.

Both said, “Evenin’, Mrs. Smith.”

“Mighty fine evening, Phillip,” she said.

“Mighty fine, Mrs. Smith,” the brawny man replied.

“You okay, Mrs. Smith?” asked his partner Darrell Grover, who was younger and blond. Lily remembered dragging the boy to his mama after Sunday school the day he said a word she wouldn’t repeat to Angie Daniels. Any other time, she’d ask how his mama was.

She nodded. Mary-Walton put her arm around Lily’s shoulders. The men entered the house. Lily could hear one of them unlock the metal door. All Pallbearers had master keys for Lock Downs. She heard loud snarling and she heard someone say, “Whoa there!” Then there was a scuffle. Soon the young man led Edwin out onto the porch. Gone-Off Edwin turned his head and snarled at Lily, reaching toward her. His face was gray.

“Oh God…”

Mary-Walton snatched her away quickly.

The second man came out of the house, and quickly put a snub-nosed shooter at Edwin’s back. There was a thwip followed by a grooooan.

“Dammit, Darrell! You weren’t supposed to bring him out here without the hood!” he yelled.

“Sorry, Phillip,” said Darrell.

Lily couldn’t stop staring. That…thing…wasn’t…couldn’t be…no…not Edwin…not…

“Mrs. Smith…” said Phillip.

“I’m…I’m fine. What—” said Lily. It wasn’t the first time she’d seen someone gone off, but this was different. It was her Edwin.

“He’s going to a better place, Lil’,” said Mary-Walton.

“There is no better place than The Farm,” said Phillip.

Edwin had become placid, his snarl replaced with a blank stare that went right through Lily.

Philip looked at Lily, tipped his hat, and stepped off the porch. Young Darrell led the slow-moving Edwin to the van, where he was loaded in the back. Phillip drove the van into the gloaming as Lily stood and watched silently. Mary stood with her.

“Mary, I think I’d like some pie about now,” said Lily.

Far from Okay

By Benjamin Stevenson

Rubbing it raw, I gulped the load
and slithered away from him.
I thought the boys in the videos
made it look so much easier.
Crawling up the ladder of pelvic
bones I wish I had broken, I stumbled
disappointingly into a familiar feeling.

Sometimes bad men ask me,
Did you have fun down
on all fours like the bitch you
are? You actually looked like
you wanted to die this time.

Stripped of the flesh,
I plugged the wounds
and soaked the husk
I call a body in warm water,
because I know
it is best for blood
and in that moment
he could have emptied
a boiling pot onto my back, and
scrubbed me like a kitchen table
far from clean and certainly
far from okay.

I still wouldn’t have felt a thing.

Notes for My Underpaid Therapist

By Benjamin Stevenson

Heather,
I have been thinking a lot about death
about sensations
how my chest would feel
while falling through dusty
air in a desert city___
slipping off
the balcony. But the image no longer
seems poetic, when I imagine what
bones might sound like crashing
against stale concrete. Stiff
as a board, & white as a candle.
I have been thinking about the
darkness that would certainly
follow me to this lonely place.
how metaphorical doors would wax &
wane far too quickly to respond
timely, nor fashionably
& how goddamn depressing this reads
on the unbroken screen of a MacBook I can
not afford, but that all my pretty white friends have.

Heather,
I have been thinking a lot about
my childhood, and all the things
I cannot and do not want to remember-
selective memory loss
Do you ever wonder if some children
need a slice of darkness to develop
into the tragic adults which our excuse
for a god determines them to become?
I do & this glimmering idea,
makes life almost fathomable,
or at least this is what I tell
myself at the end of every blurry night.

Heather,
Do you still think we’re making progress?