Here We Are on Planet Earth
By Meg Pokrass
Today we are tanning near each other on bright red beach towels on the sand at Hendri’s beach. This time I don’t let my mind worry too much about Blythe’s exhibitionist traits. I’ve overcome my shyness, and we both have our bikini tops off. They’re lying next to us like useless rags.
Sometimes, there’s a language in her eyes that makes me freeze in my tracks, but my goal in this world is to become less uptight. We are thirteen, and happily, only one of us has an attractive face. The other one of us has an attractive body. My body has some potential but there is no way to know if things will turn out.
Driving around in Blythe’s brother’s SUV, we make weekend plans. We whisper in the back seat. Blythe calls him Jeeves and we hate his jokes. Sometimes he flips us off in the rearview mirror.
But today on the sand, it’s all about us, no assholes to fuck with us here on the beach. Her eyes are grey. My eyes are blue and they make people happy, always so damn glad to know me. This has become upsetting to me, and I wish mine were unlovable, like Blythe’s.
Here we are on Planet Earth, two nude girls on the part of the beach for nudies and we are lolling like sea lions. We’re just a tiny little fleck of what is happening in the world, and our nudity hardly matters. In other parts of our town, there are more interesting problems. Parents are getting divorced, teenagers are doing drugs near the bus station, windows are being opened to let the Fall air fly in. Ma always loved the Fall, so she’s big on opening the whole house up to welcome it in.
Here on the beach, male idiots are walking past us with their surfboards tucked underneath their wings. They’re saying whoa. They’re saying, Hi girls. Honk if you believe in Jesus, Blythe says to a group of boys jumping up and down like sand fleas, not even trying to control their spermy little thoughts.
I look at Blythe’s face and she looks at mine. Her eyes are enviably blank. There is no question in my mind that Blythe has had sex already. She acts like a million years older than me, even though we share a birthday.
A middle-aged soccer mom jogs past us on the sand. What the hell are you two thinking? she says, looking at her cell phone, stopping her run and just standing there near our feet. My sunglasses block her energy out completely. Do you know what kind of trouble you’re asking for? How old are you girls? Blythe laughs, a terrible little snarly sound, a baby warthog, rolls back over to look into my eyes. She bats her very black lashes at me and giggles. Then she rolls the other way with her tits facing the sun. Once again my eyes get caught there. Her nipples look like alien ships hovering over her form. She arches like a cat and flips her fuck you to the sky above the angry woman’s face. I am too embarrassed to look at her, but I can feel her shining with rage. Before she jogs away, she says we deserve to get severely punished. Calls us dangerous. Tells us that life is not as easy as we seem to think. “Maybe it’s even worse than you girls can imagine,” she says.
By Bari Lynn Hein
Alan finds Eve seated in the center of the café. He’d intended to keep his emotions in check, but now she smiles at him the way she did when he lifted a white veil off her face, the way she did when he lifted sweat-soaked strands of her hair and told her, “It’s a boy.” Relentless love threatens to unravel him.
She gets up and kisses his cheek. He can’t feel the touch of her lips; he has only the distant memory of their last kiss, which was long before they signed the papers. When they sit, she says, “You’ve aged.”
He wishes he’d shaved off his white-streaked beard. He tells her it isn’t fair that she looks exactly the way she did twelve years ago.
A server appears at his side. For the first time in days Alan registers fragrances: butter, onions, peppers. He orders coffee and a western omelet; he no longer needs to watch his cholesterol. “I can’t believe this menu,” he says, after the server leaves. “Bacon. Eggs. Steak? Where do they get all this?”
“Yes, well, I’ll explain how it works after … ”
“Guess you want me to fill you in first.”
He takes a moment to consider which event of the past twelve years she’ll want to hear about first. “You’d be proud of the man Lucas has become,” he says.
Eve smiles at this, nods. “I knew he would be. He was such a good boy.”
“We have a daughter-in-law. Kendra.”
Her eyelashes flutter. “Lee told me. He said the wedding was beautiful.”
“Oh yeah, I guess he did.” The mention of his ex-brother-in-law catches him off-guard, renders him mute for a moment. He’s missed Lee these past few years. He struggles to give voice to the next piece of news. “We have a granddaughter.” Her eyes turn red, emboldening him. He is no longer alone in showing emotion. “They named her Eve.”
“Oh God.” The server arrives with breakfast. Eve pulls a tissue from her purse and presses it to her eyes while two plates go onto the table. “I don’t suppose you have a photo of her,” she says, sniffing.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t have one on me when I arrived.” He takes the first bite of food he’s had in days, takes his first sip of fragrant coffee. While they eat, Alan tries to paint for his ex-wife a vivid picture of her namesake, describing her lovely round face, the way she laughs, the way she explores her world. He tells her about all the milestones she’s missed out on; he’s struck by the realization that he’ll miss out on all milestones to come.
“Tell me what happened to you,” Eve says, when their plates are empty and he’s been silent for several seconds.
“It was a heart attack.”
“I’m sorry … Were you alone?”
“I wasn’t alone.” Alan closes his eyes, remembers the last thing he heard, his son—their son—calling out: “Dad? Dad!”
When he opens his eyes, Eve says, “I was alone.”
He thinks: At least you got to say goodbye. He says, “I know. Lucas agonized over that, that you were alone in the end, after all the time he’d spent by your side.” Maybe he shouldn’t’ve just burdened her with that.
“He was a good son. I’m sorry for his pain.”
“He’s flourished.” Alan tells Eve about their son’s college years, the novel he’s writing, what a loving father he is.
The server pours him a second cup; he’s still trying to wrap his mind around the fact that coffee beans are even available here.
“Have you seen your father yet?” she says.
“You’re the first person from my … life … I’ve seen. I’ve only been here a few days.”
“You’ve been here eight weeks.”
“They told me eight weeks and three days.” She puts her hand over his. He expects it to be cold but can’t feel it at all. “You’ll get used to it, the way time works around here … ”
“I have an eternity to get used to it, I guess.”
“It’s not so bad. The last twelve years have gone by fast.”
Alan sets down his cup, brings a napkin to his eyes but no tears appear on it. “I’d kinda hoped … I’d figured that if there was an afterlife, I’d be able to watch over …”
“I know. I used to believe the same thing.” Eve regards him, smiles the way she did when Lucas called her “Mommy” the first time. “You said he’s flourishing. He’ll be all right. We’ll see him again one day.”
“Hopefully when he’s an old man. Much older than us.”
After the server pours a third cup of coffee, Alan says, “This must be some form of purgatory, to have to wait tables for eternity.”
“It’s human nature to form a society,” Eve tells him. While she describes the society to which he now belongs, through the hum of surrounding conversation and clatter of cutlery, Alan tries to let go of the ties that still bind him, to the sound of his son’s voice calling out to him: “Dad? Dad!”
By the River
By Sam Smiley
I remember when we met down by the river on the night of my twenty-eighth birthday, summer of 1989. The water was ice blue during the day, but once the darkness of night arrived, a different version came out; it was black like sludge. I had come to Providence to celebrate, but my friends had gone home early for work and family, so I was alone when you came down the hill. You sat a few feet over from me, pulling a pack of Marlboros out of your jacket. You raised your eyebrows and lifted the pack, a simple gesture. I didn’t normally smoke, but that night I was happy to oblige. You didn’t tell me your name, but that didn’t bother me. You just blew out a cloud of smoke and started speaking.
“Nice night out,” you said. I stared at your smile. It, along with the crooked brimmed hat resting upon your head, framed your face and the city around us. The river reflected the light from the festival on the hill, creating pockets of light in the darkness.
“What brings you downtown tonight?” I did not know you, but you talked to me with the familiarity of a close friend.
I gestured toward the street above us where people were drinking Budweiser and swaying to a cover of Whitney Houston’s Didn’t We Almost Have It All. The festival flowed like the water in front of us, slowly and smoothly.
“Well, come on then,” you said, grabbing my hand and climbing up the grass hill to the street. You were so unafraid, slipping your hand into mine as if it didn’t matter who saw us, as if no one would care. I glanced around, paranoia starting to leak into the moment, but we were lucky. Everyone was wrapped up in the music and the light of each other. That night, no one called us faggots.
We danced, you twirling me as if I were a feather, and we were being carried by the same gust of wind. I had never been this open. We were a light shining in the darkness, and I was bold, wrapped up in the false notion of this moment’s immortality.
I reached up to touch your cheek, pulling you in and feeling your lips curve into a smile against mine. Our glasses bumped into each other, and you laughed. You took mine off, which turned your face into a blur. I could still make out your smile. You kissed me again, placing the glasses into my hand along with a slip of paper containing your address. “Write me sometime,” you said. I stood there for a moment, fumbling with my glasses. By the time I put them on, you were gone.
By Avijit Roy
The dog’s ear twitched and its fleshy edge shook out a fly. The air was tuned to its buzz.
The dog’s eyelids quivered and strained apart to view his surroundings. Casper, fondly named by the neighborhood boys, rested his face on paws on the pebbled ground, grazed by innumerable microscopic creatures. A breeze carried smells of discarded food in a nearby dumpster that trailed past his nostrils and plowed through his furry back. The fly descended on the bridge of his nose and tickled it as if fondling him to sleep. Casper was lulled and shut his eyes. Darkness moved in.
His eyes jerked open at a sudden commotion of human discord. Casper threw his gaze toward the noise with teeth parted and saliva dripping—a failed display of ferocity. As the human verbal assault grew physical, other dogs thronged the arena.
Casper propped himself up on four rickety legs, stretching muscles that formed a thin layer over his bony structure. The fly, losing its grip, flapped away.
Casper detected a bitch passing, her gait sensual. A shiver passed through his veins and he barked. The bitch recognized his call and swayed back, her face signaling encouragement. Dead gray leaves covered the street in intricate patterns, and Casper pawed through them, his eyes fixed on the bitch.
As he trotted toward her, he glanced down at a bread crust in a half-torn wrapper and was distracted. Better, he thought, to grind bread between his teeth. He lost track of his previous engagement—until instinct urged him to follow the receding shadow of his interest. With the bread secure in his teeth, he frantically propelled himself forward.
A road infested with honking vehicles blocked his way. He could not lose this opportunity. Trying to find a path among the speeding wheels, he ventured forward, then back, retreated. A truck with a blaring horn hurtled toward him …
Veuve Clicquot Rosé
By Cheyenne Autry
First, it’s important to accept that your sister’s funeral will not be the one she wanted. If your parents were alive, they would give her everything she’d asked for. The wake, the magenta tulips, the folk band, the fireworks, the graveside champagne toast. Even after all these years, that fact still bothers you, still digs in your side. The proverbial chip on the shoulder. But you will not be so accommodating. Your sister didn’t care much about what happened to her body in life, so it shouldn’t matter much to her now that she’s dead. It’s also important to feel angry. About the loss, sure, but also because you’re the younger sibling, the little sister, and this shouldn’t be happening to you.
The most pressing matter is the issue of transportation because it would have been too convenient for your sister to horseshoe a tree somewhere a little closer to home. Perhaps the oak in Fayetteville, Arkansas, isn’t as strong as the oak in Memphis, Tennessee, doesn’t make quite the same impression. Is that why she left? You find yourself in Maxine’s on her last night home. Over Moscow mules and candlelight, you examine her hair, the shape of her eyes, try to decide if her mouth turned up or down. You look for signs like that, that could, somehow, make things clear.
Call the funeral home to discuss options. When the funeral director gives you the estimate, hold tight to the Formica counter. Lock your knees. Bite the inside of your cheek till you taste blood. Thank him. Tell him you’ll be in touch. After you hang up the phone, go into the empty bedroom across the hall from yours and your husband’s. The carpet is still wet from last night’s shampooing. The hours of scrubbing did not do as much as you’d hoped. You’d needed the stains to lift, to wash away completely to white, but the closest you got was a kind of beige, the color of raw chicken. The splattering by the door indiscernible to anyone but you. Turn on the fan to help the carpet dry.
Call the fertility clinic. When the too-chipper girl on the other end says new patient appointments are booked for the next seven months, when she starts asking about insurance and quoting costs, tell her you’ll call them back tomorrow.
Your husband comes home late and crawls into bed next to you and, even after a shower, he still smells like grease and gas. Under other circumstances, this would turn you on. Maybe you should reach over anyway and give it a try one more time. Maybe the universe would be kind, take pity on you, cosmically right itself.
The next morning, sit on the porch. Drink champagne, an expensive bottle. Right now, your sister is coming up I-49, winding up and down the Ozarks toward the city on the hill. Hope that she can see the greenery, the fog between the peaks. Pour a glass for her and wait.
BECAUSE THIS IS PITTSBURGH
By Sharon Dilworth
Pick an important historical figure and write about their legacy, specifically why they were important to the city of Pittsburgh. Be sure to include why one should know about them, using at least three external references that would make it worthy of an AP History project.
I chose Queen Aliquippa. A Native-American woman, born in the early 1700s west of what is now the city of Pittsburgh. She was the leader of a band of Mingo Seneca Indians living along the three rivers and was a key ally to the British in the French and Indian war.
The only problem?
My history teacher hasn’t heard of her and therefore doesn’t consider her a “real” historical figure even though she was a woman—a woman who met with General George Washington, a woman who was considered instrumental in helping to keep the French from winning the French and Indian war, a war my high school teacher said wasn’t exactly a war—though, when I asked for his definition of war he said that my stubbornness was not my biggest problem.
We’re talking about a woman of great power in the early 1700s. In the words of another Seneca chief it was not unusual for women to occupy positions of power with the Mingos. “Women have great influence on our young warriors,” he wrote, hoping history would save his thoughts. “It is not a new thing to take women into our councils, particularly among the Seneca Tribes. We appreciate their wisdom, their instincts, and their presence. They are able to handle a great number of men with grace.”
Isn’t someone with that reputation worth celebrating?
My teacher is 26 years old and flirts with the girls in the class. He got his degree at Slippery Rock University, so let’s be honest, Slippery Rock? Enough said.
I told him that if it weren’t for Queen Aliquippa, we might all be speaking French, and he said that was too bad because if the French had won, he’d be eating steak and vegetables cooked in creamy butter and drinking great wines that didn’t cost him an arm and a leg. He’d be having six weeks of vacation every year AND NOT teaching high school History to girls with nasty chips on their shoulders.
That’s the kind of thing he says. Like he’s witty, instead of just an asshole.
He told me to write about someone more historical, someone more noteworthy.
Someone like Frick, or Mellon, or Carnegie.
“Those are men,” I told him.
“Yes,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with that. You’ll learn that soon enough.” Then he winked. At me. I shuddered.
“What about Andy Warhol?” he said.
“What about him?” I asked.
“Now there’s someone interesting. Born in Pittsburgh. You should look him up.”
Look him up? Look him up? Does he think he’s teaching us anything? There’s an entire museum on the north side devoted to Andy—seven floors of nothing but Warhol. No one has to look up anything. It’s right there.
“There’s your subject,” my teacher said. If he winked again, I was not looking.
Soup cans? A female leader known for her courage, her wisdom, and her physical strength. The chip on my shoulder is there for a reason.
I should start like this:
Pittsburgh. The point where the Allegheny and the Monongahela meet to form the Ohio, a place where women, according to the men who live here, have never done anything important ever. Not ever.
By Julia Gerhardt
At 37, I had the rare luck of seeing the life sucked out of me. Sitting on the pebbled shore of Eel River, I glanced down at my calf to see a mosquito.
“Henry, come look!” I shouted and my body shook when there was no response.
She forged through my thicket of black hairs with her iridescent legs. A bead of moisture formed and caressed my temple. That’s why she wanted me: sweat.
Once firm, she injected her snout into my skin, anesthetizing me. Despite knowing this, seeing this, I felt nothing. She was silent, smooth, sipping me like sangria.
Sooner than I anticipated, she crawled around my leg, bored of me.
Henry and I came here all the time. Did she bite him too? Did he notice like I did? Like father like son? Was his blood still inside of her? Was it mingling with mine so for a moment—just a moment—our warmth, our proof of life, pulsated together?
“I lost my boy,” I told her.
Offended, she flew away.
I laughed and waited for her friends to come and drain the rest of me.
The Trumpet Player
By Mary Beth Hines
“Hey over there, can you mute that horn? I’ve a baby here who needs to sleep!”
Head thrust out of the window, Hattie shouts over the jarring scales pulsing from the apartment across from hers. A man hollers back.
“I’ll mute this when you mute that baby!”
Hattie slams the window shut. Another stifling day stuck inside with the windows closed. It’s been like this for weeks, ever since the trumpet player moved in. Who is he, she wonders for a moment. But then, like clockwork, Emma is crying again. Hattie trudges over to the bassinet to comfort her.
Later, after dark, when Emma finally sleeps, Hattie slips outside to the fire escape where it’s cool. Legs dangling, she blows smoke rings and daydreams, waiting for Mark to get home from his night job. She wonders whether he’ll crash on his brother’s couch instead of returning tonight. He does that sometimes—so as not to wake her and the baby—and to get some sleep himself.
Hattie closes her eyes when the trumpet serenade begins. The man plays beautifully when he wants to.
“Who are you, anyway?” she calls.
“Wynton Marsalis. Can’t you tell?”
“Why don’t you come out and talk to me?”
“Because I’m playing.”
“Don’t you ever take a break?”
“I’m a symphony orchestra wannabe … no time to rest.”
“I used to be a dancer, you know. I was Clara in the Nutcracker once—Boston Ballet.”
“Good for you.”
“And jazz too, until the baby.”
“Don’t be. She’s sweet when she’s not crying. My name is Hattie, by the way.”
He responds by launching into a smoky rendition of Stella by Starlight.
Hattie begins to tie her blonde hair up into a ballerina’s bun when she goes out for her evening smoke. She dabs on lipstick. When the song is right, she pirouettes on her toes around the tiny platform, performing.
“Will I ever see you?” she calls one night.
“This hardly seems fair to me.”
“It’s life, right?”
She muses occasionally about what it would be like to kiss him. His lips must be different from others’ for him to play like he does. She wonders if he’s anything like Mark—dark-eyed, older than she, a pacing type of handsome—like the panther she used to like to visit at the city zoo.
Sometimes she pictures him more like her first major crush—one of her older brother’s friends—a rugby-playing blond with a dazzling smile—a Cheshire cat to Mark’s panther. Or maybe he really is Wynton Marsalis. Nothing seems beyond the realm of possibility in Hattie’s post-partum haze, her heat-induced delirium.
Still, she has to bite back her surprise when, one night at the end of August, he clambers down the fire escape from the roof, and materializes next to her. She knows him! He’d been in her class at school. He must have graduated when she could not, because of Emma. He’s tall and lean and no longer inhabits a spindly schoolboy’s body. His mocha skin partially conceals a sprinkling of freckles across his cheeks and nose. And his hair is long now, dark and curly. She can’t recall his name. She isn’t sure she ever knew it. He was not in her circle of friends—the popular crowd. They’d probably made fun of him. They were like that. She feels ashamed.
“I remember you,” she says.
“And I you.”
“Are you really going to play in a symphony orchestra?”
“That’s my plan. I’m leaving for the Conservatory tomorrow.”
“You’re here to say goodbye?”
“I know this might sound weird, but I’m going to miss you.”
“Me too. It’s been nice hanging around with you this summer.”
She extends her small hand toward him. He takes it between his and holds it for a few moments. Then Hattie stretches up on her toes, and they kiss, just as she’d imagined they would, until she feels dizzy and tells him to “stop, stop now.” They sit silently after that, watching stars sail and fall through Hattie’s nearly perfect smoke rings until the church bells chime dawn, and Emma wails for Hattie to come home.
By Jamey Genna
Toki is showing me an app on his phone that displays the constellations currently in the winter sky. He holds the phone up flat to the plane of the night and voila, there they are. The night sky is covered with fog and gray.
“Wow,” I say. Even when the clouds obscure the stars’ lights, the app can locate them.
What I wonder is—who turned Toki onto the app? He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who looks up cool apps. Toki is always afraid people are hacking his shit. He detests Facebook. He holds onto his phone like a lifeline. He even takes it into the bathroom when he takes a shower, like he’s worried I’ll look at it. But his phone is new and so maybe he was just looking at all the available apps in the app store and there it was. Maybe he just wants to listen to music while he showers. Or he wants to read his texts while he’s in there.
Toki says, “If you touch the screen, it tells you about the constellation.”
Pleiades—the seven sisters
Gemini—two brothers—Castor and Pollux— One was human but he died so the other asked to be made human. Zeus put them in the sky so they could always be together.
Orion boasted constantly about being a great hunter so he was stung on the ankle by a small scorpion.
Toki tells me that the app can locate the stars in the daytime, too. I think about whether the app is actually locating the stars. Or is it just full of this information? But then how is it able to point at certain positions and know what’s up there? It must use a satellite.
The knowledge that the stars are up there in the daytime surprises me. That they still exist, they aren’t gone with the sun. I mean I know this, but I never really thought about it.
But then I think, What for? I don’t want to know the stars in the daytime, just the sun. I want what’s in front of me to be what I can see.
The app plays a twinkly tune, too, as Toki rotates it around the bowl of night and I like that.
The star Betelgeuse in Orion may soon go supernova, which probably won’t affect the earth—however, it may cause a double shadow on earth for two weeks.
Huh, I wonder about seeing a double shadow of myself on the ground.
“Isn’t this cool?” Toki says.
I agree. Looking at names of the constellations, reading about their history, how their names came to be really is cool. But this distrust of Toki is making me weary. Whenever I go to his apartment, I look for evidence—two wine glasses out? An extra towel? My makeup moved around under the sink?
But Toki is showing me the stars and we are going for a walk outside at night and this makes me happy, even though it’s cold. Walking outside with Toki in the nighttime or the daytime is nice. There was a time, a long time ago, when he wouldn’t do that with me—when it was just sex—when he was honest that I wasn’t the only one. I know we’ve moved past this, but a shadow falls on my heart whenever I think someone else exists that I can’t see.
WHY WE DON’T TELL
By C.G. Thompson
“What did you do to my daughter?” the man yells.
He holds me by a clump of hair, my feet off the ground. I am ten.
“What did you do?” he screams again, his voice rising an octave. The noise hurts my ears.
“I don’t know!” I say truthfully. Maybe I cry it.
Seconds before, I was following the other campers to the outdoor amphitheater. Now I’m swinging by a gallows’ hand. My friends—the girl I know from church who’s let me borrow her favorite dress for the play, the boy who taught me how to hold an oar, the twins I’m teaching how to dive—stand stunned.
The man is doughy, mid-30s. His face looks like a reflection in a fun-house mirror. I smell fish on his breath.
It’s an incident I haven’t thought of for years, brought to mind on an innocent Saturday when I’m getting my hair cut. The new stylist suggests I grow out my bangs, then begins to tug at my scalp. She says the motion will improve circulation.
Her touch is gentle, but I travel in time. My eyes moisten.
“Are you all right?” she asks. “Did I pull too hard?”
Afterwards I meet my brother for lunch. I’m a private person, non-dramatic, but unexpectedly the story flows out. I’ve never told anyone.
“He was so crazy he didn’t look human.” It’s a relief just to speak the words.
Jeffrey plays with a pack of sugar. “Where were the other adults?” He asks it as if we’re discussing a PTA meeting.
“I don’t know.” My recollection is vignetted, nothing existing beyond a circle of scared children.
“Generally these events are coordinated. Each adult drives a group of kids, and everyone—”
“I get it.” He’s five years older than I am, still thinks he has to explain the world to me. I glance around the restaurant. It’s super busy, and all we have is our water. I squeeze lemon into my glass then take Jeffrey’s unused lemon as well.
“He couldn’t have gotten away with it if other people were around is all I’m saying. What happened after that?”
Words I’d hoped he might speak: what happened after that.
“My scalp was so painful I couldn’t sleep on my left side for two weeks. He’d pulled out some hair.”
“I mean to his daughter.”
I feel as if Jeffrey has slapped me.
“Seriously?” I use it in the ironic way, the defensive-posture way, but my heart feels beaten up.
“Seriously what?” Jeffrey is genuinely confused.
“Righteous indignation might be nice. Because you’re my brother, and, you know, you might care.” My pulse races in my ears.
He and his wife are in marriage counseling, and Mandy told me she thought he was beginning to grasp the concept of feelings. Wishful thinking, I’d guess. Wishful thinking on both our parts.
“I’m trying to get the events in order,” he says.
That’s Jeffrey. Just the facts. Write a process essay, I imagine him telling his students. Put the events in chronological order. Use transitions to aid the reader.
“What’s important is that the man was out of control. He hurt me. I was terrified! That’s the one time I would have wished for a surveillance camera.”
“You say security, I say surveillance.” I pick up my menu, pretend to read it.
He folds his arms on the table. “I’m ready for that Reuben. The Reuben and the pasta-salad side. What are you having? Caprese Salad again?”
“And I never knew what happened to his daughter. I didn’t realize she was crying until later.”
“How tall were you?”
“If you were four feet tall, and he was—what? Five feet six? How would the physics work? How could he pick you up to face level? His hand would be high above his head. And you weighed … ?”
I slide from the booth, dodge a waitress carrying a tray of food, and hurry to the women’s bathroom. My nose stings. I stand at a sink and give myself a pep talk. Expecting Jeffrey to be supportive is like expecting an amoeba to build a spaceship.
The door opens and a girl enters, talking on her cell phone. I wash my hands, then spend a good half-minute getting the automatic towel dispenser to respond.
When I return, Jeffrey has ordered for both of us.
“Dredging up bad memories isn’t healthy,” he says.
I play with the paper from my straw and count to ten. “I didn’t dredge it up. It came up because—never mind. All I want is for you to be shocked or something.”
“Isn’t it a little late? If it was such a big deal, why didn’t you tell Dad and Mom?”
If it was such a big deal.
“I don’t know. I’d survived it, and I guess when camp was over, I’d almost forgotten it. A month is a long time when you’re ten.”
“Then you should forget it now.”
A thesis statement for Jeffrey’s life, but he’s not finished: “Isn’t survived overstating it?”
Our waitress appears with our tea and asks if everything is all right. It’s part of her script, so I don’t take her words personally.
“I’ll take my mayonnaise on the side,” Jeffrey says.
The man puts me down so hard my shoes smack on the concrete. Maybe he drops me, I’m not sure.
Returning to camp, all of us are silent, afraid. I don’t know about anyone else, but I didn’t hear a word of the play. The van lurches from time to time, a clumsy shifting of gears. I stare at the man’s neck, the layer of skin lapping over his too-small collar. He takes a curve too fast, and one of the twins slides into me. I roll my eyes, meaning, He can’t even drive. I hope she’ll look back with compassion. She ignores me and scoots away.
By Jeff Nazzaro
I caught the tip of my middle finger in the heavy steel door to the indoor swimming pool, just above the lower hinge. It took all my strength to push the door open and pull my finger out because I was twelve years old and twig skinny. Had anyone pushed the door closed from the other side, the locker room side, the tip of my finger would have snapped clean off.
I was at soccer camp at this fancy prep school. Camp lasted two weeks. This was the beginning of the second week. I was one of the weaker players, but that morning I’d taken a pass on the left wing and scooted down the sideline, dribbling past three defenders, then running hard, toeing the ball down the open field, thinking, This is it, I’m doing it, I’m good, I knew I was good, I’m going to win Most Improved Camper. I really felt it. You got a trophy and a brand new, official-size soccer ball for winning. I heard the keeper scream, “Get back!” and a coach yell, “Whoa!” Then I lost control of the ball and it skidded past the end line for a goal kick. Then I caught my fucking finger in the pool door.
I turned and pushed the door. It didn’t budge. I pushed with all my might. It moved just enough and I pulled my finger out. I looked at it. The flesh at the first knuckle parted in two flaps, almost to the bone. Probably to the bone. It didn’t bleed. How did it not bleed? I went over and stuck my finger in the pool, thinking it would help. The heavily chlorinated water stung the open wound, so I yanked back my finger. Then came the blood, gushing from out the fleshy flaps. I cupped my hand under my bleeding finger and went and showed it to the lifeguard. She had blond hair and wore a bright orange lifeguard’s one-piece swimsuit with soccer shorts over the suit. She made a sharp little sound of surprise when she saw the gash in my finger, then she guided me by my other hand over to the first aid box and stuck a wad of gauze over the flaps. She wrapped some tape around the gauze and took me to the camp counselor on duty at the pool.
This little camper should go to the infirmary right away, she told him. Then she leaned closer and said something I couldn’t hear. The counselor looked surprised.
I was still dry. The counselor helped me get my T-shirt on, then my socks and sneakers. He tied my shoelaces for me, then walked me to the infirmary. He was the counselor all the girls were in love with, the one who joked around with all the boys. He played striker at the big state university. He went around with his socks pushed down to his ankles. Everyone gave him a hard time because it was 1982, and walking around with your socks pushed down to your ankles wasn’t cool yet. It was downright strange. He didn’t care. He wanted his calves tanned. They were—very muscular and tanned.
He talked to me all the way to the infirmary. He told me to hold my finger up. Keep it elevated, he said. He asked me if it hurt. Not really, I said. He said the nurses at the infirmary would probably just slap a butterfly on it and send me back to camp. He asked me if I knew what a butterfly was. I didn’t. He said they used them on boxers when they got a bad cut. He said he got one for a cut over his eye after bashing heads with a fullback going for a corner kick. He won the ball, his teammate finished it, and the trainer ran out onto the field and slapped a butterfly on the cut over his eye. A butterfly, okay, slap one on my finger, then we’ll walk back together and everyone will think I’m cool and tough and I’II definitely win Most Improved Camper. Maybe I’ll push my socks down and get a really good tan on my calves, too. My legs were so white.
It took four stitches to close the wound. The doctor said he would inject a local anesthetic into my finger and that it would feel like a series of little mosquito bites. The nurse said I could hold her hand and squeeze as hard as I could if it hurt. The doctor gave me the first injection. I squeezed the nurse’s hand. The doctor gave me another. And another. Each time felt like he’d jammed the needle in the wound and was just thrusting it around in there for kicks, poking the bone, seeing just how much pain he could inflict. Each thrust hurt worse than the one before. I closed my eyes and squeezed. I squeezed so hard I heard the nurse give a little gasp, and then I felt the tears burst from my eyes. That’s all I remember. When I came to, my finger was stitched and bandaged and the counselor was gone. I walked back alone with my socks at my knees.
I was bent down, struggling to tie my cleats, when I saw him the next day, no shin guards, socks pushed down to his ankles, legs tanned bronze through light-brown hair. He walked slowly out to the field for the afternoon session, smiling at some girls and trading barbs with some boys. I stood, tugging awkwardly at my socks, and sort of waved my swollen, bandaged finger as he passed. He looked away like he hadn’t seen me and jogged out to the field.
By Robert Libbey
Old Nort was swaddled like a baby but snored like a foghorn. Every so often he wheezed and opened his eyes like he was startled. I couldn’t tell if that was him trying to speak because he had a tube shoved right down his throat.
Soon enough he rolled to his side and settled in a fetal position. The threadbare sheet rode up the back of his thighs, and I could see his diaper. Listen here, Sarge—I thought—don’t even think about crapping those, ’cause that’s way above my pay-grade.
The sunroom where they’d propped his cot was a mess.
“How’d you like to make a few extra bucks?” that old fart, Miss Doris, had asked after I’d finished mowing her lawn.
So here I was, her brother’s recovery buddy awaiting the next shift’s orderly.
They had a religious show on the TV for company. A guy with a slick wig of hair intoned, “In the beginning … ”
“His lungs are Swiss cheese,” the Mr. had said when Miss Doris was out of earshot, nodding at Nort while going through the motions of instruction. “That’s what he gets for all that smoking,” he added, not very brotherly.
But I could see how desperate they were for a reprieve by how fast they high-tailed it.
And who was I to judge? I was here and there was the Lord’s work to be done.
Limbs from overgrown shrubs were jabbing through open jalousies. The cranks on some were stuck. An oscillating fan puffed a wisp of air here and there, but it was stifling.
I went at the windows with a scraping knife and some WD-40 I’d found in the garage. When I looked back at Nort a trail of snot had run from his nose onto the pillow. Dabbing it meant getting close.
Nort’s neck was starched tight—mottled with splotches—real gruesome.
A bare green shelf was the only dash of color in the room.
In a box beside the bed were some belongings. A bunch of photos: Young Nort in a tux; young Nort in uniform. Medals and assorted patches. A life’s junk.
Nort’s breathing was labored. His lips sputtered, and his face contorted in a silly-putty grimace.
For God’s sake shouldn’t someone put him out of his misery?!
“You do this?!” Miss Doris asked, astonished. The mister nodded approvingly at my handiwork.
I’d lost track of myself.
The nurse had been a no show.
Day had folded into night.
And I’d done what anyone else would’ve, hadn’t I: Out of chaos, I’d brought order.
By Will H. Blackwell, Jr.
Early evening: I was standing on a rise about 100 yards from the lake. In the shifting glow of sunset, the lake’s surface seemed to shun light, its margins blending with the earth-darkened banks.
When I awoke, it was morning. I was lying in fresh grass, just above the near-bank of the lake, facing the sun—rising on the opposite side. How did I come to be here, I wondered? What, exactly, had I been doing, during the night?
But all was soothing, peaceful, and such thoughts slipped from my mind. I drifted back to sleep.
When I woke again, it was mid-afternoon. I was now sitting on the bank—legs, dangling over the side, penetrating the tempting but already shade-chilled water.
They say there are millions of little animals—protozoa, tiny worms, and such—in just a few drops of water at a lake’s edge; given enough time, these minute predators—nibbling microscopically away—will gradually erode the flesh from your bones.
But who could worry about this on a beautiful day? Anyway, my legs couldn’t have been in the water very long. So, I splashed my feet a while, then lay back, enjoying the lingering day as it slowly dissolved in darkness—letting my thoughts fade once more.
I was suddenly, violently, jarred awake, in darkness—now in the lake!—water churning around me—surprisingly, coming from my arms, flailing. I quickly realized I was fighting to keep my head above water—the water soon swelling as its own turbulent force.
I managed to stabilize myself and began swimming toward what I thought was the near-shore.
But, during what may have been another episode of sleep—How was this possible, under such circumstances?—the shores had somehow become reversed! I found myself swimming toward the opposite bank! Surely, this must be farther!
The lake—at least, out in the middle of it—seemed much larger than when casually viewing it yesterday. But I kept swimming—no choice, really!—my arms at first slicing curves through the water, like blades on a paddle-boat wheel.
My arms eventually weakened, but I continued to splash-kick toward what I thought was the shoreline—which, inexplicably, appeared to keep receding from me.
My body became heavy, though—spent from the effort, and time passing. I closed my eyes for what seemed like a few seconds, allowing myself to rest, momentarily, to conserve energy.
When I awakened this time, I was floating face-down, starring into a cold, uneven water-mirror—of undetermined extent. In the magnified moonlight, my seemingly distant reflection, below, looked back up at me—appearing distorted, ancient—or maybe, just wrinkled from the water?
I began imagining [Was I imagining?] small chunks of flesh missing—from my, seemingly, already withered frame—from fish, biting—or turtles, perhaps? In a side-glance, I saw a water-snake—raising its slender head like a periscope—pass by, too close for comfort, sending a sine-wave of water across me from its scythe-like undulations.
Resolve renewed, I managed to lift my head up from the water—out of this ‘aquatic window into my apparent death’—and gulp in some badly needed air.
I started swimming again with desperate, if not entirely effective, strokes—still trying to reach the safety of shore—Exactly which shore? I wasn’t sure.
However, fatigue set in again—my eyes now vaguely lit in the broad sweep of darkness. Soon, I could no longer see anything clearly—all, eventually going black.
When my eyes reopened, dawn was approaching. I was still floating, but with my arms stretched forward—reaching. Finally, I was near a bank of the lake—my hands pressing into shore-mud, coming up between my finger-splits like some primordial ooze, ripe with the odor of bacteria.
Trying to reach up, I grasped at the bank-edge; but it was too muddy and slick to gain a firm handhold, and I found myself slipping, backward, into the lake—like a small boat, launched in reverse.
My mind somehow also seemed to slip backward—reversing in memory—soon sliding back to nothing—no thought.
When I woke yet again—unrested this time—the fatigue and hypothermia seemed unbearable! I felt, for the first time, unable to continue my struggle to survive.
I began slowly drifting downward into deepening, darkening water—my arms spread like waterlogged sails on a capsized ship—no hope of catching favorable wind or wave—the descent already too great.
My eyes blinked, and I was down—frighteningly down—all the way to the silted lake-bottom.
I rolled slowly around in the dense, pressuring water, dimly observing tin-scaled carp and slimy-sided catfish circling, sniffing the remains of my torso—like so many small, mutant, freshwater-sharks.
I am not only drowning, but now entangled in strap-like weeds—drug down with me, unwittingly, from the surface?—about to be eaten by stinking, bottom-dwelling fish! I am thinking—urgently—if the situation becomes any more dire, I cannot escape this endless-seeming dream—this limnetic nightmare! If I cannot, it means certain death!
I sense I will surely die in my sleep, if I do not breathe—the episode of ‘Apnea’ too prolonged, this time. I can’t seem to get the binding straps of these water-weeds—I mean of this dysfunctional, foul-smelling CPAP-machine [that, yes, I should have cleaned!]—loose from my head!
So, okay, enough! Enough! Time to wake up! and stay awake, no matter what!
I must do so, now!—my only chance to see morning, again!
With great effort, I literally pull myself to consciousness, from the drowsy brink [uh, the filmy CPAP-mask], desperately gasping for air.
My lungs, at last, inflate … and I realize …
This particular dream is lethal—potentially fatal! I know, I can never dream it again—or, there will be no return!—to the safe shores of my water-bed.
But … how NOT to dream it again? I, most unsettlingly, wonder!
The Orange Over the Horizon
By Jieyan Wang
Lola did not know what had just happened. It was still nighttime, though morning was close enough that the sky was not pure black but a murky indigo. The city where she lived was far away. When she squinted, she imagined that she could see the lights and whirling streets in the distance, but soon it was clear that there was nothing except for the grass that sprawled for miles upon miles. The verdant blades blanketed the gently rolling hills, lazily swaying in the cool breeze.
It was not until a full minute later that she realized her arm was bleeding. Crimson leaked out of her forearm, coating the ground with its richness. She lay down on the slope of one of the hills. Her body slowly sank into the wet soil as she watched the horizon.
There it was again—that lovely song, the heartbreaking melody—it flowed from the boundary between the heavens and the earth. It drowned the hills and surged up her nostrils. Lola choked. It tasted of lily water, slightly sweet with an infinite amount of bitterness.
Now she remembered. All along, it was Eos awaking from her slumber. The forgotten sister of Helios and Selene, the eternal sun and moon, Eos was a brief instant, the sudden appearance of light. Her rose-kissed fingers and her dusty violet lips were waiting to sweep across the sky. This was her song—her crying call—as she took over the world in a fleeting moment before yielding it to the blinding sun.
A line of birds cut through the darkness. Lola studied them. They were sparrows. Gliding on top of the wind, they sliced through the shadows above. As a child, she learned that sparrows were the first animals to wake up. They beat the sun to daylight and began flying as soon as the owls closed their eyes. She curled up as their whispering chirps mingled with the music overflowing from the horizon. The rhythm trembled. Beneath her, the earth shook.
She shivered. The melody seeped into the cut on her arm. The window in her home, she now recalled, gave her the cut. A few hours ago, she was asleep in her bed. The song began when dawn approached. It tugged at her heart. She threw open the glass and jumped. Even the shattering noise was not enough for her to resist the lure of the sunrise chorus. It was a siren’s call, and now she lay underneath the dark sky, with a warm tint of orange creeping ever so silently upwards.
Her veins hummed. Feathers bloomed in her arteries and crammed in her chest. Lola pressed a hand onto her heart. It burned. Fire coursed through her bones. All she had were questions. What had led her to this wilderness? What had made her so desperate to follow the call of Eos?
Lola shuddered. She was either in a dream or a nightmare. But one thing for certain was the hollowness of her soul. Her heart had been emptied by loneliness, eaten by solitude. She thought back to her house in the city. It was tucked away into a corner filled with smog. Soot coated her lungs and threw her into coughing fits. She could not see more than six feet through the smoke; she was the only person in the world. Then the song appeared. Its tune was so strong that she did not need sight to follow it.
Her body was seizing up now. Her limbs flailed in abrupt, jerky movements. The melody flooded her blood. The sparrows were screeching now. The heavens were brightening. It wasn’t always this way—there wasn’t always smog. Back when Lola was a child, she never saw a hint of mist. The air was crisp. It carried her mother and her father, who taught her that her arms were wings, capable of defying gravity.
Lola remembered flying. She could feel the clouds brushing past her face. It was a time of ambition, of searching for new lands. A few years ago, she landed in the city and was astonished by the shrieking cars and flaming neon lights that overshined the stars above. Then came the relentless upward climb: office after office and paperwork after midnight when her eyes were just about ready to burst. All she wanted was a dream, a dream that consisted of silver coins, glittering esteem, and the innate desire to leave the stifling countryside she grew up in and move into the heavenly glory of skyscrapers.
Only when she shut herself into her concrete house and only let the smog inside did she notice the thundering emptiness in her chest. Her heart shivered until the stale air began to dry its muscles. The organ threatened to fall into slumber and never wake up. The memory of the golden wheat hills she lay in as a child faded until it was nothing but a pile of ash. But now the ash was burning again as the sun peeked over the horizon, bathing the grass in its autumn-apricot glow. The song erupted. She cried out. The notes of the corn-covered plains her parents cleared every spring roared with the arrival of the light. In the distance, it shrieked mother … father … look at the sky …
The sparrows were not the only ones awake now. There were robins, blue jays, and swallows. Their cacophony of ballades ripped through the fiery yonder. As she boiled, Lola refused to remain silent. She screamed. Her high-pitched, ear-splitting call cut through Eos’s throat. The goddess stumbled. The birds’ sonata cut off abruptly. Nothing but silence rang through the air. Eos receded; the sky was blue once again without a hint of the bittersweet rose that colored her cheeks. The blood in Lola’s veins sank into calmness, and when she looked at the gash on her arm, she imagined that a feather had sprouted there, white and filled with wonderment.
By Barry Yedvobnick
The White House: Present Day
“Controversial and astonishing don’t quite do this justice, Isaac,” said the President. “You’re going to need a bigger word. This is proof of intelligent design, and it’ll redefine how we think about science and religion.”
Professor Isaac Chen couldn’t wrap his head around where he was as he met with the President in the West Wing. Shortly after the university’s press release announcing his evidence that the human genome had been purposely edited millions of years ago, it went viral. Then his phone rang and eighteen hours later he landed in D.C.
“I understand why you may be skeptical,” said Isaac. “I’m still coming to grips with it all myself, but the data is very clear. These edits were made before our human ancestors left Africa to populate the globe. Every human being contains these altered genes. The bottom line here, Mr. President, is that human evolution didn’t occur just by natural selection. Some major steps arose through design, not by chance.”
Isaac’s team had discovered the footprint of DNA-editing within several human genes. These genes had been modified in the distant past to function differently than those of our closest living evolutionary relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos.
“Two million years ago, Isaac! Are you going to suggest that God had a hand in this?” asked the President, “because many will interpret it that way, regardless of what you intend.”
“I’m confident these changes were by design. But the designer … I’m not certain it can be answered in a way that would satisfy most people,” replied Isaac.
“You’ve got that right,” said the President. “Some will call it intervention by God, others will never use that word. It’ll be determined by one’s faith. But you’ll be asked who, at the press conference in a few minutes, and afterwards. Are you religious?”
“Agnostic,” Isaac replied. “I believe in evolution by natural selection, but I’m open-minded about what may have started it all. Until this I never imagined that specific steps in our evolution could’ve been directed. Can I ask where you stand on this, Mr. President? As someone who often expresses their faith, I’m interested in your thoughts.”
The President sat back and paused before replying.
“I think we’d have to be a pretty self-centered species to believe we’re the only, or even the most advanced organisms in the universe. Those of us who say we believe in God can have very different ideas of what that might be, and different motives for stating those beliefs.”
“So if you’re asked by the press what you thought about the source of these edits, you’d say—”
“I’d say I don’t know for certain, but that my faith tells me it was God and that we all need to figure this out for ourselves.”
“I just don’t want my answers to sound dismissive,” said Isaac. “This news means a lot to many people, and I want to get it right.”
“Isaac, you need to remind people that you’re only the messenger here, not the message. Just because you made this discovery doesn’t elevate or validate your opinion of what it means. Once you step beyond the data, it’s just guesswork, so don’t let anyone’s questions define what you’ve accomplished. You’ve shown us that we’re probably not alone. Beyond that, it’s a matter of one’s faith.”
Elsewhere: About 2 Million Years Earlier
“I must intervene in one of my evolution studies. Some problems have developed which will slow the process significantly,” said the candidate.
“Describe the problems and interventions,” asked an examiner.
“I need to edit three DNA sequences of an ape species,” said the candidate.
“The first is a muscle gene that gives the apes great bite strength. This jaw muscle wraps around the cranial sutures, restricting expansion of the brain case. This is the major issue that needs attention. I’ll reduce the activity of this gene, which will accommodate a larger brain, but maintain a sufficient bite.”
“The second gene controls cell division in the brain. I’ll increase its activity to produce greater cell number and diversity within the expanded brain case.”
“The final modification will improve a gene that controls language formation, allowing more complex syntax and communication among the edited animals. I expect tremendous synergy among these three alterations for evolutionary potential. This should put the study back to an acceptable timeframe.”
“I have a question,” responded an examiner. “Let’s assume your changes accelerate evolution. We’ve seen similar interventions by other candidates in the past. Evolution was accelerated, but the edits also resulted in overly aggressive behaviors in the resultant species. This is unacceptable. What are your plans to avoid such errors?”
“I’ve selected different genes than the other candidates, in particular the language-associated gene. The improvement in communication skills should reduce such conflicts; my simulations indicate just a small likelihood of aggression problems.”
“What is your revised timeframe for this study after incorporation of these edits?” asked an examiner.
“I’ll let this study run another two million years. Simulations indicate that by then, the evolved species will have the knowledge to make further editing improvements on their own. This study should be finished, and I hope to then progress to my next level of training.”
“And what if this evolved species chooses not to pursue such improvements?” asked an examiner. “We’ve also seen that happen previously, and the species always fails.”
“At that point I’ll design and incorporate any required edits,” said the candidate, “unless you prefer that I order another asteroid strike and restart the study.”