Emily Strauss has an M.A. in English, but is self-taught in poetry, which she has written since college. Over 500 of her poems appear in a wide variety of online venues and in anthologies, in the U.S. and abroad. She is a Best of the Net and twice a Pushcart nominee. The natural world of the American West is generally her framework; she also considers the narratives of people and places around her. She is a retired teacher living in Oregon.
Meanwhile on the edge of a mountain
in the middle of Gale Crater a solitary
human device crawls for five years
the only inhabitant, the last survivor
alone on a planet of debris-strewn
buttes, river-washed sediments under
a red sky. Lonely might not fit. Tread
marks appear on the dusty plain below.
There were two. They never spoke or
crossed paths. The planet is vast. But
one stopped working. The second one
is climbing now. Tire tracks disappear
on smooth rock. There are no voices
or echoes. The sound of electric motors
is lost in the thin atmosphere. It's a dead
world. The machine doesn't know that.
It climbs stone, stops to snap a photo
of the crater rim for distant humans.
From Somewhere Else
As her head fell farther into her collar, leathery neck
always wrapped in thick wool scarves, tremored hands
clutching the arms of her favorite wingback chair,
at the end she kept mumbling, I don't live on this planet
I don't live on this planet.
Where, we wondered, did she come from then,
but we never asked. She was too far gone already.
Had she floated down on gossamer sleeves
from a ship passing in an outer orbit,
a comet on a hyperbolic path never to return
and she fell like the Little Prince
onto a tiny planet among the elephants and foxes,
landing in a soft pile of leaves
that blew in her face and settled in her hair?
From there she stood, lived, then retired to this chair,
always waiting for the next body of dust and ice
to catch her raised hand, a white beacon.
Then she would tell us, see?not from here,
a temporary guest, a rainbow through rain
a spider web blowing, her frail body
a dusty tail searching among the planets.
Skulls, I’ve heard, have stories to tell.
I wish I could interview mine:
learn why it lacks
the smooth globular shape
shown in biology labs,
doctors’ examining rooms.
Why a dysmorphic groove
runs the brief length from my crown
down the saggital suture--
a trough providentially hidden by hair.
Why it produces a pleasant sensation
a satisfaction akin to my fingertip’s search
for the point of a leaf or sharp corner of paper.
that the skull’s outer surface
conformed to the purpose and shape
of the brain-part beneath.
That the crown of the head,
the closest to God,
was related to reverence--
an odd echo of Eastern conception
of the crown chakra as nexus to the Divine.
So what of this gutter of mine?
This bevel between embankments,
crown to the back of the head?
As if my cortex reacted at birth
like an anemone shrinking away
As if where the parietal plates
should have closed to a smoothness,
a moat developed to safeguard my brain
from the impulse to worship.
If there’s a moral North Star
that flickers above any storm,
my compass needle was skewed:
pointed not to the magnetic pole
but to what I believed my true north.
Landlocked but longing to sail
I embarked with no chart
but the love I considered my right,
fell afoul of wind gusts sweeping us south
to a zone of white squalls.
Devastation at sea and on shore:
connections as fragile as corals,
muddy secrets like mangroves unroofed,
the future washed out and reshaped
like a tropical coastline.
Storms pass. Marine life returns.
Mangroves sprout new stems and leaves
out of still-living trunks.
Time wobbles the earth on its axis,
the moral north shifts.
Natalya Sukhonos is bilingual in Russian and English and also speaks Spanish, French, and Portuguese. Natalya has a PhD in Comparative Literature from Harvard University. She teaches Spanish at Ramaz School. Her poems are published by the American Journal of Poetry, the Saint Ann's Review, Driftwood Press, Literary Mama, Middle Gray Magazine, The Really System and other journals. Natalya was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2015 and the Best New Poets Anthology of 2015. Her chapbook 'Parachute' was published in 2016 by Kelsay Books of Aldrich Press.
Theater of Bones
Mama, why do we need bones?
What if we didn’t? Would we roll through the dark
like tiny skin animals, and never get to dance?
What about that skeleton?
He is entirely made of bones.
I like my glowing yellow ring. Keep it flashing.
It’ll ward off the skeletons. They only come in your sleep
when you can’t hear their limping rattle,
see their mouths open and close
like the dolls of a Christmas clock.
I’m not scared, mama. But they are watching me
with their crimson eyes, drumming on my bed
with their knuckles and kneecaps.
Once their music reaches me, I’ll be like Grandma.
Or worse: turn into one of them
and make scary theater for other little girls.
So I won’t ever go to sleep. I need to lie
in the little house papa made with the blanket.
I don’t want to take off my mermaid dress.
Am I the prettiest mermaid?
I have to put on another skirt to sleep
in case the skeletons are coming.
That way they won’t know it’s me.
They’ll come for another little girl.
I’m afraid of the dark they bring
under their tongues and eyelids.
Does the dark have elbows? Does it have
bones? Can it sleep?
My Body Is a Map of Someone Else’s Life
Rivers, mountains, and continents
threaded silver with my name.
A globe that quivers with my breath,
opens into the night and all of its stars,
listens to itself turning on an axis
like a ball of light.
A compass pulsing with my breath,
it spells out: to be human,
you must first be a fish, then a frog,
fingers curling inward at an awkward angle,
their webbing fragile and alien
like Dutch lace from another time.
A pattern that wants to be held. To feed
from me at all hours with little
animal paws and a pinching mouth,
then fall into the voiceless dark
until hunger pierces it like a thread of light.
Its contours change daily in my fingers
until one day, it wriggles free
and protests: “I’m a Mama too, now.
I can put on my own dress,
feed myself princess-mama food.”
But at night my daughter --
once a trace of the future living inside me --
still climbs into my bed,
reaches for my arm as if reaching
for the dream I’m having,
tries to slip into my slumber unawares,
to slip back into my body,
to find that quiet all maps possess
before the start of the journey.
Robert Hoare is a Canadian musician, lyricist and writer. He is a York University and Humber College (Toronto, Canada) graduate. Over the last 24 years he has collaborated on over 45 albums for major and independent record labels. His music and lyrics have been performed at festivals in Canada and Europe. His first book, Music Basics was published in 2017. Currently, he is a teacher for English in Music Media and songwriting at The University of the Popular Arts in Berlin.
might even be
a better place,
if there was a lot more
is all around us,
but we don’t see it.
We don’t see it
because it's empty.
That makes us feel better
The back line, the bottom line
There's no exceptions made here
A line which is drawn
From one end to the other
Going back past your mother
A line leaving no trace
Which is far beyond time and space
Is it crooked or curved
Thick, thin or straight through
A line stretching directly from me to you
Lines are joining, some never meet
Front lines or on the side
Borderlines are there between us too
Broken lines and those of fire
There are lines of duty and desire
The party line, red, white and blue
Maybe powered, fine and clean
Getting in or out of line
Read carefully in between
That's the yellow line
Waist, water and air
Lines spreading above your feet
Bee lines and tree lines
Lines to communicate through
Piped like water and oil
Coastal and global lines measured in soil
Headlines and deadlines
Lines to tow and go through
All those lines out there
Getting a line on you
Packing my tool bag, I checked the weather again. The television in the kitchen ran a news and weather station. Tightly packed onto one little screen was an endless stream of human misery, ad nauseam. The big story was that after too much alcohol two teenage girls decided it was a good idea to throw a chair off a high rise balcony onto the highway below. They posted a video of the act on social media. Nothing surprised me any more.
The cold snap would continue and there was more snow on the way. Mountains of snow and ice already clogged the streets and it was nearly impossible to park anywhere. Rule number one for a mattress inspector was never to park in a customer's driveway. It seemed absurd, but it wasn't about courtesy, it was about liability and responsibility.
I found the mattress inspector job online. The job posting claimed it was possible to make a couple
of hundred dollars for six or seven inspections per week. One bold sentence really caught my eye. It stated, "You might say, our responsibility is to take no responsibility." I thought, "Wow, that's a job for me!" As it turned out, being a mattress inspector was going to be a little more involved than I initially bargained for. Aside from things like punctuality, appearance and company protocol, there were also repair techniques and a list special names for mattress defects that I needed to learn.
Filling out inspection reports was half the job.
My first time out was a training run with another inspector. She worked outside my 25 kilometer work radius, so I had to drive to the east end of the city. There I found tight little Victorian row houses hidden behind the snowplow icebergs. The sidewalks squeaked under my feet, mocking me with each step.
Jamie was in her late twenties and spoke with a hint of a Caribbean accent. She was all smiles and happy to help me learn the ropes. As we marched up to a wooden porch, she began to explain how she did the inspections. She emphasized, it was best to place your work bag and tools strategically, somewhere that blocked the customer from getting too close to the bed and to you. I was soon to discover the wisdom of her method. A grey haired man in his sixties answered. He was scrawny, unshaven, wearing a half-open flannel shirt. He began talking the second we were in the door and it was clear that he wasn't going to stop. Before we had our boots off we knew all about his knee operation, his working wife and their daughter who lived on the other side of the country. He was a real chatterbox.
The three of us hobbled up a cramped staircase to the bedroom. It was a claustrophobic space with the musty smell of grandmother's closet. As soon as we were in the bedroom, Jamie handed the customer a waiver to sign and then placed her tools and level between him and the bed. The waiver was important. It stated that no matter what happened M&M Mattress Company inspectors had absolutely no influence over the outcome of the inspection. Her tool placement method didn't work. The customer squeezed by and stood at the foot of the bed. Jamie did her job throughly, but the customer's tireless banter was making it difficult for her to concentrate while explaining to me, what she was doing. We both wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible, but everything about the mattress needed to be documented. It was best, she said, to always take the pictures in the same order. This made sorting them out for the online documentation more manageable. She checked the mattress labels, measured depressions, inspected the frames and the floor. She also checked with a flashlight for ‘soilage’. A mattress that was soiled meant that any warranty claim was null and void. In this case, company policy was straight forward. It dictated that inspectors should take a few photographs and then get out. Inspectors were also advised to not mention this policy to the customer. It could end in lengthy discussions and time was money.
As we moved the mattress aside and off the frame, dust bunnies under the bed started dancing. The customer decided this was a great opportunity to clean up under there. Out came a broom and clouds of dust spun up into the air. I thought I'd choke to death.
Once outside Jamie filled me in on what actually happened in there. The customer claimed that the mattress was sagging on the sides and it was bulging in the middle. This was called 'crowning'. It's typical for king-sized mattresses. Sales personnel rarely mention this little detail and surprised customers watched a hill growing down the middle of their mattress with no claim for a new one. It turns out every mattress tells a story.
My area covered a vast and desolate piece of suburban real estate. The region was once a lowland plain with drumlins, moraines and broad leaf forests where First Nation peoples roamed. Those forests were cleared for farming and orchards and now in turn they were being leveled for a sprawling suburban city. Bulldozed flat, the land was featureless and navigating the streets was like driving on a plate of cooked spaghetti. Most of the homes were cookie-cutter style, built on small treeless lots. This was the promise of a new life for the flood immigrants who were being welcomed to come and spend their hard earned savings. Some of the neighbourhoods were so new that there were not accurate street maps. My area boasted of over a million of mattresses. There would be no shortage of work. My appointments were in the late afternoon or early evening hours, sometimes on the weekends.
How I introduced myself when I called to set them up was carefully orchestrated. I had a script to follow. Before calling I'd rehearse every sentence. Often, the phone was answered by someone who didn't have a clue what I was talking about. They'd shout some name over their shoulder, "Hey, there's someone here on the phone about a mattress."
My first solo run was on a bitter cold afternoon. The car had to warm up for ten minutes before I
could clear the ice off the windshield. I had three inspections and I organized them into one big 60 kilometer circle. I headed north through rush hour traffic. Rush hour was all day long and people drove as if thirty seconds would change their lives. Watching the daily news feed, I knew that sometimes it did.
I arrived at a small cluster of high rise apartment buildings set within a triangle of highway intersections. The view from the top of the building would have looked like salt crystal snakes stretching out over a sea of snowy strip malls and vacant land. My customer was a regular and when I called to make the appointment, she inquired about my predecessor using his first name. She seemed sad that he'd left the company. She owned a therapeutic bed with a hydraulic system and she thought it was making a funny a noise. Her apartment was small with one bedroom and an open kitchenette. It didn't feel overcrowded, but there was a single pathway around the sofa, coffee table and armchair. On a shelf, there were photos of a young woman and a dog. With the television running in the background, she told me she'd retired early because of an injury. I began inspecting the hydraulic frame, but I didn't have a clue what I was doing. Trying to look good, I pulled out my manual and went through the electronics checklist. I was new on the job, but she didn't care about any of that. My predecessor had been there often enough that she could tell me how to get the covers off the hydraulic cylinders. My visit was the highlight of her day. She was pleased to have someone to talk to for a hour or so. As we talked, her voice was even and calm. It was as if her words were coming from a far away place. She told me that she'd suffered some kind of a breakdown she spent time in a clinic.
After removing the hydraulic covers and raising and lowering both ends of the bed several times, I decided that the faint grating sound was the Velcro-Fasteners slipping over the mattress covers. I assured her that the bed was in perfect working order. As I stood in the front room filling out the inspection report, she began telling me about her dog. It had passed away only a few weeks earlier and had been her companion for fifteen years. Her eyes welled up with tears. I put the report down and listened, it was heart-breaking. I would have liked to stay longer, I liked her. As I laced up my boots, her lips flattened to a smile, but her eyes reflected the formless days with a faint glimmer of hope that something might change.
My next inspection was further north into a tangle of streets with white brick homes sitting on square lots. They looked expensive, but they were all the same, stretching just high enough to block out the grey horizon. I parked as close as I could and skated up the driveway. A well-groomed, middle-aged man answered the door, He welcomed me into a large entrance hall. It was ornate, but a little austere. An oak staircase was at the other end and our small talk about the icy weather continued as we mounted them towards the bedroom. Upstairs sat his pregnant wife and he was concerned about her. It was an unexpected late pregnancy and her doctors demanded she get plenty of bed rest. The sagging mattress was was killing her lower back. He asked me to lie on it and see for myself. In the politest possible way, I explained that company policy forbid me from lying on a customer's mattress, but I could test it with my hand. With a slight amount of pressure my fist felt as if it was sinking into wet dough. I handed him the waiver to sign and began the inspection. The mattress looked new and I threw the plumb line across it. Our measuring device was a plastic ruler mounted on a circular plastic disk. I could see right away that the natural depressions would not be deep enough for a claim. His wife watched, sitting in her armchair with her feet raised. She was dressed in an orange saris and her hair showed traces of grey. She looked uncomfortable. I placed the plumb line at either end so that the weights rested on a higher point in the mattress. This increased the depression measurements a little. After that, I removed the mattress from the bed frame and checked it. The floor was level. It all checked out.
I explained that I had no influence over the results of the inspection. The company I worked for had nothing to do with the mattress retailer. In a way, that was a pile of baloney because the company that sold him the mattress paid for the inspections. I told him I'd pass on their complains, but I couldn't say what would happen. I knew that a middle-aged immigrant was an easy mark for a smooth talking mattress salesman looking for a commission. He thanked me in the kindest way as we went back downstairs.
I sat in the car for a few minutes, lost in empathy. It had started to snow again and I just wanted to
get back home. I had one more run in a a less affluent area of my region. The houses were smaller and squeezed together for maximum usage of space. In twenty years the area would be a ghetto, I thought.
It was dark by the time I arrived and the porch light was on. The walkway hadn't been shoveled since the last snowfall and now the snow was matted down into uneven footprints of ice. My feet crushed the sharp edges. A woman answered the door in a state of confusion. Her hair looked as if she's had her head in a blender. She was probably in her mid-thirties, but she could have easily passed for someone ten years older. I was not expected. "Mattress?" she said, she didn't know what I was talking about. She was getting ready to close the door, "Ah wait, my husband. Come in, come
I stepped into a narrow space. It was full of shoes, boots and winter garments. The floors and walls were smudged and caked with dirt. She started on about how she'd just got home from work and she was trying to get dinner ready. I heard a child's voice and the woman barked back over her shoulder. Once beyond the threshold, I was in an open space living room and kitchen area. There was stuff scattered everywhere, toys, clothing and scraps of paper. The little girl was sitting on the floor with streaks from dried tears on her grimy little face. She glared at me and then started whining for attention as her mother apologized for the mess. We went up a staircase to a small rectangular room and then she went back downstairs. There was no furniture, but there were children's clothes and paper tissues all over the floor. It was impossible to enter without stepping on something. Two mattresses were on the floor. They were both filthy and soiled in large patches and left little to the imagination. There was no claim here. I just followed the mattress man manual. I took a few photos for proof and then stood there for several minutes looking down at a child's belongings.
I didn't know what to do and it felt like an eternity. I could hear the television downstairs and I remembered the job posting sentence that caught my eye, "our responsibility is to take no responsibility." I walked downstairs and handed her the waiver to sign, then I quoted the manual. When I got home, I watched the news and the young woman who threw the chair over the balcony had turned herself in. A spokesperson for the police said she showed no remorse for her actions. The next morning, I started looking for a new job.
Aimee Nicole is a queer poet currently residing in Rhode Island. She holds a BFA in Creative Writing from Roger Williams University and has been published by the Red Booth Review, Psychic Meatloaf, and Dying Dahlia Review, among others. For fun, she enjoys attending roller derby bouts and trying desperately to win at drag bingo.
When I called you crosslegged from the burgundy carpet,
I twisted hope through my fingers in the form of an old telephone cord.
This second chance handed to you through the waves,
a distance daughter’s voice could plead with father.
I’m still yours.
I come from your carnal desires.
Take me into your arms and hold me closer than the moment I was born.
I reached through the phone, fingering air.
A 2-minute phone call that told me everything I needed and nothing a baby girl wants to hear.
For three decades, I shuttled along wildly
out of orbit. Spinning faster than
everyone and everything, my breath fogging
the windows, my runaway heart pulsing against cotton. Constellations brought us together
under the Gemini moon and we threaded together — called home after signals lost in the frenzied wind. You pressed your body against mine, melted to me like a precious sweet left out too long in the sun.
Laura Plummer is an American journalist and writer born in Massachusetts in 1984. Her creative writing has appeared in The Sun Magazine and The Topic Journal. Read her work at lauraplummer.me.
Marry young and have your babies;
they’ll give you some sweet memories.
When they lay you under those trees,
that’s all you can take with you.
He lived his whole life Downeast,
trapping lobsters for the rich man’s feast.
A lifetime store of elbow grease--
that’s all you can take with you.
One day I’ll turn to dust within
this rocky shore where lay my kin.
The suit my boys will bury me in--
that’s all you can take with you.
When these bones are laid to rest,
they’ll place some flowers o’er my chest.
I’ll know that I have done my best.
That’s all you can take with you.
Marry young and have your babies;
they’ll give you some sweet memories.
When they lay you under those trees,
that’s all you can take with you.
The cellar has a fisherman, or so the neighbors say.
He’s only here four weeks a year. He never comes to stay.
They send his letters to the house, addressed to unit D.
They sit in bundles on the stoop when he goes out to sea.
His face is creased and leathered like a worn-out pair of shoes.
He drinks away the endless days as he awaits the news
that Captain’s heading out again and gathering his crew.
For now, he pours another pint and drowns himself in brew.
The job is in his blood, the only life he’s ever known.
A wife and kids were not to be, but he was not alone.
The locals always welcomed him when he returned to shore.
For thirty years he’s fished these banks. He’ll fish for thirty more.
A lively raconteur, the folks around here knew him well.
And as he roamed from pub to pub, the stories he would tell
of days of roping swordfish and harpooning raging whales.
The people gathered at his side to hear his wild tales.
He now resides beneath the earth, unsatisfied on land.
He’s darkened all the windows in his castle made of sand.
He hasn’t got a visitor to bring him company--
the Cape Ann gulls and cormorants his only family.
He won’t emerge in daylight when the sun is in the trees
or peek his head outside to feel the chilly autumn breeze.
They say his silhouette is sometimes seen by lantern’s light.
You’ll find him slowly passing like a ghost ship in the night.
The cellar has a fisherman, or so the neighbors say.
He’s only here four weeks a year. He never comes to stay.
The cellar-dwelling fisherman is waiting for his call,
a faded phantom sea dog who may not exist at all.
A tired breath escaped the gas mask worn. Before him was the job he had been working on for three years: the remains of a city once called Baltimore. Of course, that was before the war. And the bombs. But that was nearly 200 years ago. Aaron walked down the paved streets, a forced smile coming to him as he waved to some coworkers that were about to enter a building.
Aaron, to be frank, hated his job. As a member of the Recovery Corp., they had the pleasure of a job that gave them a unique experience every day. Go into a city and recover items spared from the grand destruction of the bombs. He had seen so many unique cities that were once booming and filled to the brim with people. New York City was the most dangerous because of all the high rise buildings that were structurally unsound thanks to the bombs. San Francisco was a wonderful contrast of the gorgeous blues of the ocean with the dilapidated and abandoned buildings.
To many people, this would be a fantastic job. But nobody told him that he would be away for years at a time from his home. Most of the items he found had already been catalogued and been preserved too. Over the three years he had been in Baltimore he hadn’t found anything of interest and he had a strong feeling that the he wouldn’t over the next month.
Aaron’s job today was an apartment building in mid-town. It was thanks to his experiencethat he got it to himself. No help and more importantly no one to ask questions or bother him. He reveled in these opportunities because of the silence and stopped in front of the four storycomplex to take in the building.
It was a holdover from the time before the war. Brick on the outside. A majority of the windows were broken from either the bombs or looting. A chunk of the building was missing from where he was facing it. He looked to his right at a small sign: Taurus Apartments.
He entered the lobby of the apartment, looking around, no emotion coming to him. The white paint was peeling and a small sitting area had been overturned. In front of him was a hallway with what he assumed were non-operational elevators. To his right was an office that was probably modern back then but in today’s society would’ve be seen as out of place and tacky. To his left was another hallway, which he followed down. He walked by vending machines that he had seen in numerous buildings and found stairs at the end of the hallway.
One slow ascension later and he found himself on the second floor. The first door was on his left and as he approached it he fished out his key-all. One wave in front of the digital card and Aaron was inside. A thick layer of dust covered a majority of the items in the room that he assumed was the living room. A small coffee table, a sofa, couple of chairs and an old physical TV. A sigh came from him, the only sound in the room as he started his work.
He looked around and spotted a few toys laying around and what looked like a video game console long forgotten. He held his left arm up to the objects, tapped two buttons on the metal plate resting on his arm and it came to life. A display popped up, it’s holographic interface waiting for an input. After a few presses a bright, neon blue light shot out and moved over the toys and the console. Aaron’s shoulders slumped when he saw that they had already been catalogued.
This was the process for the entirety of the second floor. Apartment to apartment, room to room, scanning items and if one came up as new it was his job to tag and bag it to be brought totheir headquarters. Sadly there were no such items and with a roll of his eyes he left the last room on the second floor.
As he made his way to the third floor the sun was shining brightly through the windowsand made his white hazmat suit gleam. It also illuminated the hallways, dark green walls clashing horribly with light brown tiling that had seen much better days. It seemed as though people long ago really didn’t care about how things looked.
He did his job, checking the apartments until he came to a room that had the giant hole he spotted earlier. Aaron noted that it seemed as though nature was trying to reclaim this apartment. Vines were spreading out from the hole, trailing along the ground and spreading to other items as the rest of the vine disappeared at the edge.
He moved about the rooms until he got to the bedroom. Nature hadn’t gotten this far into the building, leaving the room nearly pristine minus the dust. He moved around cautiously, opening drawers and moving clothing to the side. Every item needed to be documented so he made sure to set each piece to the side. Amongst the clothing was old newspaper clippings. Peace Talks Fall Apart! read one. Is the End Nigh? was another. Aaron felt his heart drop at the titles. What was it like to see these and think about the end days?
Aaron counted himself lucky to be born when he was. His parents never revealed much about life before and how their relatives survived. It never bothered Aaron, he always assumed it would be too hard to talk about surviving such an event. He had heard stories in school about what some survivors went through. The thought sent a chill down his spine as he returned to his work. As he moved more newspaper clippings he stopped. He slowly and tenderly scooped up an item and rotated it slowly. It was eight inches in width and ten inches in height. The edges were a brilliant dark wood from what he could see through his visor. The frame held a picture of a smiling family, two sons, a mom and a dad. His breathing slowed as he took a step back and sat on the bed.
Aaron turned and could see the room coming to life. He could hear the laughter that these walls heard, the clanging of dishes as dinner was getting ready, the drawers closing as clothes were put away. Aaron looked at himself in the mirror, seeing his reflection as more thing than man. All of this made him miss home. Three years away had taken a toll that no one knew and that his co-workers seemingly refused to understand.
He took the picture out of the frame and dragged his gloved thumb over the family. He hit the same buttons on his arm mounted scanner, ready to catalogue a unique find. He turned the frame over in his hand and undid the latches. He peeled the back off but stopped when he saw the back of the photo.
He stared, his jaw slightly going slack at what he had read. He looked one more time before doing something that could possibly kill him. As quick as he could he unzipped his hazmat suit and shoved the picture into his shirt that was under the suit before zipping it back up. He patted the spot over his suit and closed his eyes, saying a silent prayer before getting up. Now, he just wanted to get home.
Thankfully the rest of the day passed by without a hitch and Aaron was able to turn in his hazmat suit without being picked for a random scan. It was part of the standard procedure by the new government: they wanted to make sure that no one brought in any illegal items that could harm others. He made his way to the safe area and up to one of his managers who was looking at all the new items catalogued.
“Hey Henry,” Aaron spoke. Henry greeted him with a smile. Aaron was seen by many as one of the best at this job even though he was relatively young compared to the other workers.
“Aaron, how’s it going? Everything go okay in the complex?”
“Yeah, it did, shame I only got a few new items. I know there isn’t much left to do in the city, like only a few big buildings left. I was wondering if maybe I could take an early leave?”
“Really?” Henry asked, cocking his eyebrow, “What’s going on?”
“Uh…” Aaron said before it dawned on him, “I’m just really homesick. Three years away from home hangs on you. One year here, one in New York and another in San Francisco. I was hoping I could just get a little bit of extra time off by going home early. Think that’s possible?”
Henry looked down at his tablet, pressing on it a few times and swiping in different directions. Aaron waited patiently as others filed in to the residence for the evening. With only a few workers left Henry looked up at Aaron with a smile.
“Go ahead and take off, transport will be here in 30. Have everything ready by the front. Good job here, you outdid yourself.”
Aaron raced upstairs. Ten minutes later he was in front of the makeshift residence, bags on the ground, nervously waiting. Aaron was now on a mission and knew it was an easy one to complete.
An hour later and he was on a magna-train heading home to Central. The new magna lines had been created just 30 years ago thanks to scientists collaborating together after the creation of Central.
That was what everyone called the city nowadays. It was at one point just a simple colony of survivors they called Haven. But as it grew the name was discarded in favor of Central because everything sprung from it. New colonies, the rail line, new sources of power, green technology. Everything sprung from Central and everyone was working to spread it as far as they could.
Large magnets near the rails stopped the train as it pulled into the station. Eight at night was always a dead time and the lack of crowds would make it easier to get home. Aaron disembarked with a sigh of relief as he made his way up the tanned marble stairs and into the main station. The roof above him was a beautiful glass mosaic showing the progress of the city and during the day the colors shined beautifully. He entered the main hub and walked past the circular reception desk made of old mahogany. He pushed through the wooden doors into Central and after being away for three years the city took his breath away.
He walked on the stone pathway to the gold color railing and leaned on it, looking out. Buildings easily reached up to 30 to 40 floors in height. The buildings had large square windows, curved around the corners to allow as much light as possible and every inch of space had an intricate design. Looking up, Aaron could see small wind turbines that were catching every bit of wind to help power the lights. He looked behind him and on either side of the door leading into the train station was a beautiful flower garden, trees and grass that practically glowed in the lightfrom the street lamps. It was home.
Aaron peeled his eyes from the wonderful scenery and made his way to an elevator, getting down from the second floor to the ground level of the city. From there he walked slowly, allowing the air to caress his face as he walked past others. It was a bit harder than usual because of the luggage he was carrying around but he didn’t care. For the first time in three years he was back home. He wanted to go complete his mission but suddenly he was hit with fatigue. A small smile came to his face as he crossed the street and instead of going right he instead went left. A few minutes later he was at an ornate apartment building, which he dragged himself. A familiar face at the reception desk was there to greet him.
“Sir Aaron! A pleasure to see your beaming face again!” K-LPM9 said, rising from its station at the desk and moving to Aaron to assist. All mechanical with solar panels sleekly placed along its arms, it’s official designation was Kinetic-Life Protection Machine, but everyonesimply called him Kelp.
“Hey Kelp, how ya been?” Aaron said, the fatigue hitting him harder.
“Oh perfectly fine sir! New tenants moving in, others sadly leaving and Central continues to grow every day! I thought you weren’t coming back from Baltimore for at least another few weeks?” it asked, head tilted to the side. It’s eyes were black with a small white light that moved around like a human iris. And even though it didn’t have a moving mouth it had a small slot where it would be. It had at this point hoisted all of Aaron’s luggage with ease.
“Yeah I was but work started to catch up on me, you know?” Aaron said as the two moved to the elevator.
“Oh I wish I knew sir but work has never caught up to me.”
“Wait, Kelp, is it okay for you to move away from the desk?”
“Oh it’s fine! I’ve been given a new upgrade while you’ve been gone. If anyone else comes in, I can trigger a hologram of myself to work. It’s brilliant sir!” it said and Aaron was sure if the robot could smile it would. The two continued idle chat until the elevator stopped at the sixth floor. Aaron opened the door to his room and it was a sight for his sore eyes. Aaron went to the kitchen while Kelp laid down his stuff in the small living room. After a tip, which Kelp used to spruce up the lobby, Aaron was laying in his bed, fast asleep in his work clothes, happy to be home again.
Morning came quicker than he would’ve wanted. He groaned at the sunlight that peaked into his room, his automatic curtains closing as programmed. But Aaron forced himself to get up, pulling the curtains open so he could look out at Central. The buildings seemed golden to him and contrasted wonderfully with the planted greenery around the city. All of it was part of a green initiative within the city, with all buildings have wind turbines and solar panels throughout the exteriors. Aaron saw his reflection in the window and gave himself a tired smile. One thing to do then he could crash for a few days. He patted his chest and felt the picture was still tucked inside. With a nod he changed clothes, making sure to take the picture from his shirt and put it inside a vest he now wore.
Soon he was out of the apartment and onto the street. He looked up through the trees that covered the sidewalk. He couldn’t help but take everything in. After three years, he missed everything about this city.
And a smile came to his face when he saw his favorite spot in the city was still open. La Rouge Café, simple design inside and out with the best food that he always swore by to his friends. After going in and grabbing some breakfast food for the people he was seeing today he was back on the sidewalk and striding with confidence to an elevator. One trip to the fourth floor of the city later and he found himself in front of a small building.
Unlike the ground floor of the city the fourth floor was home to houses and mansions for those that could afford them. The one in front of him was more traditional than any other building in Central and was a reflection of the times before the war.
Around the edge was a picket fence that contrasted the look of the city. Grass stood at attention and two trees, one near the fence and one near the house, stood guard with their green leaves. The house itself was a small brick house, two floors total with seven rooms that Aaron knew like the back of his hand. He opened the wooden gate and walked down the small concrete path to the dark brown front door. Aaron knocked and waited, checking his vest again until the door opened.
“Aaron!” his friend Sarah said, quickly wrapping her arms around him in a hug that he returned immediately.
“Hi Sarah. How have you been?” Aaron said with a smile as they separated from each other.
“Great! I’ve been taking care of my mom. What are you doing back? I thought you were going to be gone for a little longer.”
“No, I asked for an early release. Can I come in?”
It was just as he remembered from when he said goodbye. Wooden stairs going upstairs, to the left a living room and to the right a dining room and kitchen in the back. In the kitchen were a couple of large patio doors that lead to the back yard. Nothing had changed: same paint, pictures, furniture, everything was where he had remembered it was.
“Been enjoying the work?” Sarah asked as they walked to the kitchen.
“It’s been… well, fine is the word,” he said with a tired smile as he laid the food down on the table in the dining room.
“Why do you say that?”
“Long hours, everything I find already being found and collected. Feels pointless at times,” he said with a shrug as he took a glass of water from her.
“That’s a shame, but I’m sure you’ll find something cool!” Sarah said with the same optimism that she had when they met as freshman in college.
“Well, that’s actually why I came by. Is your mom around?” he asked. Sarah looked at him with confusion until walking to the patio doors and opening them to the deck. It was a wooden deck that looked recently stained. A few steps down led to a wonderful back yard that anyone would want to run around in, ending at a railing that gave a wonderful view of the city.
“Mom, look who’s here to visit,” Sarah said, her mom turning to them, her features lighting up when she laid eyes on him.
“Oh Aaron, hello sweetie,” she said, getting up slowly, Aaron walking over to her quickly so she wouldn’t have to walk.
“How’re you Ms. Higgins?”
“Fine dear, I can’t complain with a view like this. What brings you back so early?”
“I, uh, was in Baltimore doing the usual recovery work at an apartment complex. I smuggled something out,” he said, the two looking at him with uncertainty. Aaron reached into his vest and pulled out the photo, handing it to Ms. Higgins. Ms. Higgins looked at the photo, confused at first but her face started to change.
“That’s…” her eyes started to water as she turned the picture over in her hand. She put her other hand over her mouth before she let out a small gasp. A smile came to Aaron as Sarah looked at the picture herself.
“Who are they mom?”
“My grandfather and his parents,” she responded as tears started trailing down her face, “My great grandparents didn’t survive the initial blast. He and his brother barely survived out in the wild. They were picked up by a caravan. They found a small home and grew up in it with complete strangers… I’ve never seen grandfather so young.”
The tears continued to fall as Ms. Higgins started to cry out loud. Sarah held her, a single tear going down her face. She looked at the picture herself and saw a phrase written on the back, ‘Higgins Family 2025’.
“I guess you were right Sarah,” Aaron spoke up as he scooted closer and placed a hand on her mother’s shoulder, “I did find something cool.”
Kill Your Darlings
"You must kill your darlings," my writing teacher paced the room like a preacher. "Be it your favorite passage, favorite chapter or favorite character. If it doesn't add anything to your story - cut, delete, kill it!"
Our stories returned covered with red marks. Death sentences for words he deemed unnecessary.
"You poor thing," my wife comforted me with kisses when I came home. "How can you stand getting so many marks on your paper?"
I shrugged. She wasn't a writer, she wouldn't understand.
I spent hours at the my typewriter ripping out words like tearing off my flesh. Writing in this classic style made me feel a deeper connection to my stories. And there was something more visceral about editing on paper than on a computer screen.
My wife came into my study with a steaming cup of tea. She placed it dangerously close to my latest draft.
She massaged my back and whispered in my ear: "Don't forget to take out the trash."
No time to morn the words I slew. I left them in body bags on the curb.
I spent the week transplanting words until it was time to leave for my workshop.
"Why don't you cut class and we'll got to the movies," my wife suggested. "I haven't seen you all week."
"My piece is being work shopped tonight."
"It's not like you're taking this course for a degree or even a grade."
I said nothing and left for class.
They crucified my piece. Too much useless information.
"I'll say it again," my teacher bellowed. "Kill your darlings! Trust me. It will make you a better writer."
I locked myself in my office, slicing my story to shreds.
"Don't even think about spending the whole weekend in here!" my wife said on Friday evening when she brought in my dinner tray.
I locked the door after she left.
On Saturday night she pounded on it and shouted: "I'm going to knock on this door until you come out."
As she pounded, I had an epiphany.
I had to kill my darling.
“Oh my God!” my wife screamed when I opened to door to let her in. “What are you doing? Stop! Stop!”
But it was too late.
My manuscript burned on my dinner tray. We watched until there was nothing left but ashes.
“Let's go see that movie,” I suggested.
A Cut Above
The blade ripped open his flesh. Blood rose to the surface.
The Trans never disturbed their son when he was up in his room blasting classical music. This meant Derek was doing his homework or studying for a test. He locked himself away for hours with Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” repeating numerous times. Derek was the top student of his class, so his parents never questioned his methods.
Naked on his bed, razor blade in hand. The pain was his high. The pain was his secret.
Judy Winters knew she was Derek Tran’s only friend. But even she didn’t feel like she knew him. Judy lived across the street and spent most of her childhood playing with Derek. As they grew older, their interaction narrowed to walking to school together. It seemed the smarter Derek got, the less he wanted to have fun. Even in the summer he wore jeans and long sleeve shirts.
His first cut was at age thirteen. As he washed up in the bathroom, his eyes fell onto a razor blade his father must have left on the sink after shaving. It called to him. Just a little cut. Nobody will know.
The pain was terrifying, exciting and familiar all at the same time.
Derek Tran was the first to finish his test. This came as no surprise to Mrs. Winston. Derek was the brightest student she’d ever taught. He may have been a little shy and withdrawn, but she knew boys like him blossomed in college. When they were surrounded by their equals.
Though tests came easy to him, the anticipation of them was stressful. If he failed, his parents would scrutinize him more. He couldn’t wait to be done with them. He always finished first, channeling his nervous energy into answering questions.
But once completed, he had nowhere else to channel that energy in the classroom. He asked for a bathroom pass and practically ran there to lock himself into a stall.
Razors fit perfectly in his wallet. He rolled up his sleeve and began to slice.
Lucas saw that somebody was in the stall but decided to light the cigarette anyhow. He almost dropped it when he saw it was that nerdy Asian guy. That goody two-shoes would probably rat him out. He thought about threatening him, but the kid looked scared enough when Lucas glared at him.
He wouldn’t say a word.
Derek had cut everywhere: arms, legs, chest, stomach, the small of his back. And once while masturbating, he had an inspiration. As he cut, he climaxed. Blood and semen pooled on his thigh.
Principal Stewart hated making exceptions for students. But he didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize Derek Tran’s grade-point average. It made the school look good. And if the school looked good, he looked good. The kid didn’t want to take gym class, and Stewart hated the idea of the boy not being active. But he granted the boy a library study period instead. At least he would get smarter as he got fatter.
There were so many places he wanted to cut, but knew he couldn’t. His face, his forehead, his tongue, his neck, his hands, his feet. And the urge to slice his eyelids was almost unbearable. Could he slice his eyes?
Derek’s father was proud of his son, but feared his mother pressured him too much. He worried that his son would have a nervous breakdown. It was happening to younger people more and more these days. So many responsibilities for somebody so young.
He wished his son had more friends and would leave the house more often. He’d love to sit in the stands and watch his son play baseball. Or even look out the window to see his son trying crazy stunts on his bike. Instead of it sitting in the basement collecting dust.
Life was too short not to have fun.
There were others like him out there. He met some on the internet. The dream was to meet them in person some day and cut together. It’d be better than a sex hook-up. The excitement of sharing his secret. And keeping another’s.
Derek’s mother found a blood-splattered washcloth under her son’s bed while she was vacuuming his room one morning. She thought it was odd, but figured he had cut himself shaving and accidentally dropped the cloth under his bed. He’d done it before.
She didn’t mind tidying up his room. It was one less thing he had to worry about and he could focus on his studies. Nothing was more important. He had to get good grades, get into a good college and get a high paying job. She didn’t want him to ever have to worry about money.
She threw the washcloth in the laundry hamper and continued her housework.
Summer was here. A report card full of As. Almost three months of not having to stress over tests (those summer classes his mother made him take were a cake walk). No longer needing to cut. Maybe he could wear shorts this summer.
And maybe nobody would notice his report card was stained with blood.
Madison Culpepper is a sophomore at Northwestern Community College and is 21 years old. She currently lives in Farmington, Connecticut. She studied creative writing at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts and now studies Psychology with a minor in writing. She won two silver keys and one gold key in the Scholastic Writing Awards, is published by Fictional Cafe, and hopes to publish a poetry book someday.
Dear Old Friend
.....I stumbled upon old photos
.....of you on my Nintendo DS
.....a few weeks ago.
.....You always glared at me
.....because you hated getting
.....your photo taken, but I kept
.....the pictures in case you
.....came over again, so we could
.....talk until 2am and laugh over
.....your emo bangs and my braces.
.....My parents told me you were
.....bad news. They knew you were
.....going downhill after constantly
.....dying your hair and being home alone
.....while your mom worked
.....at the local bar. I know it doesn’t
.....seem like a good reason, but
.....the more hair you lost the more
.....I didn’t recognize you.
.....In high school you rarely showed up.
.....Some days you came in with
.....more cuts dragged across your
.....arms. I shivered at the thought of
.....your thighs and ankles because they
.....were once bare and clean.
.....I knew our friendship was over
.... when you started drinking
.....your mom’s collection of alcohol
.....and stopped lighting up my phone.
.....I texted you often, trying to help
.....you through a heavy depression.
.....I lost sleep when you kept saying
.....nothing will save me, I cut again
.....I’m not beautiful, I want to die.
.....In my eyes, I saw your glow
.....even though you refused to
.....and I cried with you.
.....We saw each other last June
.....at Walmart when you got off
.....your shift. You lost so much weight,
.....more piercings and tattoos made
.....a home in your skin. You said I
..... looked more like an adult.
.....I thought you looked like a stranger.
.....I wanted so badly to ask you
.....to sleepover, talk until 2am,
.....but you weren’t the same girl.
.....In seventh grade you became obsessed
.....with a boy who had Justin Bieber hair.
.....You watched his YouTube videos every
.....night and wanted so badly to be his.
.....I fell for him long before and tried to
.....hide the way my heart fluttered
.....when I saw him and he felt the same.
.....You gave me the nod of approval, it wasn’t
.....a big deal because I liked him first,
.....but you kept abusing yourself.
.....We’ve been dating since eighth grade.
.....You said you would never get over him
.....so you hooked up with all the wrong people to cope.
.....That was six years ago and now you
.....don’t feel any love for him. If anything
.....you’ve been supportive of our love
.....which is all I could hope for even
.....though we went our separate ways.
.....When I saw you last you were still happy
.....for the relationship I share, the person I’ve become,
.....and act like we are still friends when we don’t speak.
.....When I heard you got arrested a few months
.....back I cried. You had cocaine and were caught.
.....The drugs and the alcohol ripped you apart
.....and sent you into the backseat of a police car.
.....I wanted to tell my parents they were wrong,
.....that you were healthy and working towards
.....a brighter future, but all I saw was handcuffs.
.....Behind your icy eyes I still see beauty, kindness,
.....and a girl who deserves love. When I hugged
.....you goodbye that last time I didn’t want to let go.
.....I wanted to go back to 2012 when we were innocent,
.....careless, had endless sleepovers, and told
.....each other everything on our minds.
.....When I got home I took out my Nintendo DS,
.....looked at the photos of you and
.....teared up. I would do anything to go back
.....to that day when we were best friends
.....and not strangers.
I look into the mirror,
alone in my pink pajamas
panda slippers and
glossy blue eyes stare back
asking me the same question:
why don’t you party?
At twenty years old, I haven’t
received an invitation.
They know the minute I stand
in a crowded room, glasses clinking,
people laughing, music blaring,
I want to run away and lock
myself in the bathroom.
I wish I was the girl who knew
how to have fun, loosen up,
take a shot, dance too much,
but I guess I’m not a party girl.
Meeting you was the best thing that ever happened to me.
Yes, I’m listening to you.
That’s okay, I don’t want to fuck you in the ass.
Looks like you’ve lost weight.
I like your family.
I’m proud of you.
No one else interests me, there’s only you.
Of course I don’t regret marrying you.
I don’t think what your saying is stupid.
This is just a rough patch, things will get better.
I love you.