Cryogenics

By Tala Fehsel


 Cold trickles down the sides of my heart like thawing meat,

    dripping its way from top to bottom

    in a display of cryogenics

    just beneath my breastbone

It aches slightly, numb from anesthesia.

 

The warmer it gets

    the faster it melts

    the faster it smells

    the faster it spoils and rots

Becoming food for swarming insects.

 

Catch me quick, and freeze me again—

    Let me grow frigid and stiff against warm fingers

    Let the frost draw ferns across ventricles

    and trap me back inside.

 

Twenty years believing I was stone only to find myself flesh instead

    condensation moist as dew,

    as sweat,

    across my sternum.

 

I have been waiting, without knowing it.

I have been waiting.

I am alive.

The Picture of Health

” A short story featuring Pestilence of the four horsemen and a trip to the hospital. Sometimes a chance encounter changes the entire way a person works. “

By Devan Petersen


Pestilence was leaning outside of a small town hospital with the hood of his sweatshirt drawn up so that his face was mostly hidden. He was zeroed in on his cell phone screen, and hoped that his appearance would deter any curious mortal that would have the misfortune of trying to talk to him. Well, not misfortune quite. Pestilence was one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Not your average day job sure, but being a living legend had to be done by someone. Pestilence wasn’t exactly sure which to call himself—to be honest if asked for a label he’d probably wrinkle his nose and grumble something along the lines of “middle child” before he decided he was legendary or anything of the sort.

That meant that the sibling younger than him got babied, and the two older than him never let him forget they were older. That was a fallback of working centuries in “the family business”—which, actually, wasn’t really even a business. Not officially. See, he and his siblings weren’t supposed to be out and about until the world was ending. They could do small stuff to stir things up—or to get the bigwigs “upstairs” to pay attention. Where upstairs was, Pestilence didn’t have the foggiest idea. Or even who the bigwigs were—he’d been traipsing around the planet since before humanity and had never heard from them or seen them. Death swore she’d met them before though, and the family just didn’t go against the eldest. Everything they did was supposed to end at her after all.

Pestilence scowled and peered at his phone. She had been sending him text after text all morning. He half wished she had continued to have her aversion to technology—the eighties had been filled with her complaints about the new wave of human invention but now she couldn’t pry herself from her iPhone.

TO: Pestilence

FROM: Death

Pesti, make it something good (:

Pestilence clicked the back of his teeth with his tongue. He wanted to respond for her to get off his back—Pestilence had been cooking up disease since the old days. That’s what he did, touched people, made them sick, waited til’ they wasted away and let his sister swoop in and take em’ off. Humans kept evolving with their immune systems, which meant he had to stay on his toes and make up something new to keep them scrambling.

TO: Death

FROM: Pestilence

whatever.

He pushed his phone into his pocket and slipped inside the hospital. Clean white walls rose up around him, fluorescent lights buzzed overhead. Pestilence sniffed and rubbed at the end of his nose, dodging the people filtering by him. More for their own sake than his, he didn’t need what he had pieced together this morning spreading through people who were healthy. That got them on their toes too fast. All it took was a touch, a brush of shoulders or fingertips and they’d be bedridden and possibly visiting his sister before their time.

That was what happened though, he figured—after all, he was a Horseman. On his heels road death and destruction, and the day that the world ended would be his day of triumph. He and his brothers—they would rid the world of the sickness that plagued it’s surface. Death told him that when that day came his touch would be healing, that it would be curing the blight of the human race by helping the others to get rid of it. A purging.

To be honest the idea terrified him. It made him recoil in horror of himself, but there was an order to things and all had their place and nature. He wasn’t any difference, he was Pestilence and he would do what he had to in life.

Not a person glanced his way in the hospital, and that was what he was used to. He glided by doctors and nurses with barely a glance—Pestilence didn’t have anything big in the works at the moment. Sometimes his older brothers got bored, and he set something out that had the mortals running around like dimwitted animals. They were easy to scare, when it came to sickness. It reminded them of their mortality.

“Are you lonely?” The question almost fell into the white noise backdrop that was the conversation in the hospital—Pestilence was used to that. People hear spoke, talked to one another in dreaded tones and quiet concern. The question wasn’t so out of place, what was out of place was the small boy stepping into his path with a frown, “Hey—are you okay?”

Pestilence stared—he wasn’t, and never had been, the sort that would draw the eye of a person in public. He just looked like a slightly sick teenager, a little too red around the eyes and nose, a little too pale—and he certainly hadn’t been acting lost. People passed him by, because maybe some tiny part of them could feel that stopping near him was a terrible idea.

They didn’t just… talk to him.

“You looked kind of sad,” the kid continued a little nervously. He had a gap in his teeth, and his hair was sticking up in a way that suggested he hadn’t brushed his hair. There was an old camera dangling from his neck, one of the ones that spat the photo out directly instead of needing to be printed later. The boy was bouncing from foot to foot nervously, his brow furrowed, “So I thought, ‘hey, is that guy okay?’ and decided to ask. So, are you okay?”

“Er, yes,” Pestilence frowned and drew back from the child automatically. He wasn’t who he was here for, and he ought to not be drawn into a conversation with him. Still part of him longed for more—was that so much to ask? When a single touch of his fingertips destroyed things so slowly? He didn’t think so, maybe that was selfish, but it hovered there in his chest. A want for something just a little bit more. “I think—you thought I looked sad?”

“The way my sister does sometimes,” the boy frowned and rubbed at the end of his nose. “She’s lonely too, I think. People at school don’t talk to her much—Mom says she’ll get over it, girls just go through that kinda thing y’know?”

“It’s important to her though,” Pestilence said quietly. Death was too busy with teenagers if you asked Pestilence—he usually dealt with the very young and the elderly. People who had either only just tasted what life could be or had had their fill. The ones in the middle always made him uncomfortable—he didn’t mind cutting it off at the beginning or near the end, but it seemed strange to do things right in the center.

“Probably,” the kid frowned as though troubled. “She doesn’t listen to me though.”

“Siblings do that,” Pestilence found himself saying distantly. He was suddenly vividly reminded of the Swine Flu epidemic, and his brothers chanting—“C’mon Pesti, when was the last time you did anything big? The Bubonic Plague?”—like Yellow Fever had just been a breeze, it wasn’t his fault that he’d piqued in the sixth century.

“How come?” the child asked.

“I don’t know, that’s how mine act. They don’t listen, that’s a sibling thing,” Pestilence shrugged his shoulders.

“But I listen to my sister, so not all siblings do,” the child pointed out with a grin.

“Yeah but most of them don’t,” Pestilence said, feeling nettled. The child didn’t seem to notice, he trailed after Pestilence as he tried to walk away. Pestilence huffed, squaring his shoulders.

“Are you here because you’re sick?” The kid was leaping to a new topic faster than Pestilence could keep up—that’s right, humans were always go-go-go. He’d forgotten that, it was an unpleasant thing to deal with in person. He liked to stop and think about thinks, to stare and wonder at the complexities of the universe around him. Still, he allowed himself a sort of cough of laughter.

“No, not really. Business mostly,” Pestilence found himself unconsciously shoving his hands into the ragged sweater he wore. The boy looked interested, he’d made a mistake and he knew it the instant he saw those eyes light up.

“Like a job?” the kid asked, swinging around and almost bumping into Pestilence. The being pulled back with a scowl, letting the child dodge around him as he skipped over linoleum. “But you’re my sister’s age and she’s too little for work.”

“I’m older than your sister,” Pestilence snorted.

“How do you know? Do you know my sister?” this kid was beginning to drive him crazy. The child seemed too energetic for his own good, swinging around in place and holding both arms out as though he were an airplane. Pestilence had to press his back against the wall to avoid touching the little boy.

“Why are you here?” the Horsemen asked, the kid stopped abruptly.

“My mom cut her hand,” the boy wrinkled his nose. “She got lots of blood everywhere, but we came here to fix it up.”

“So they just let you run around like wild?” Pestilence rolled his eyes.

“It’s boring,” the kid complained. He perked up, “Can I come with you?”

“No,” Pestilence’s response was flat—the last thing he needed was a mortal tagging along with him when he started to spread a disease. The boy’s lip pursed out, and he looked petulant for a few moments. Like he was about to cry, Pestilence moved past him carefully. The kid made as though to grab for him and he jerked away.

“Do not touch me, got it?” Pestilence felt his throat close up when the kid stepped closer to him and he stepped back again. The child meant it playfully, he could see it on the kid’s face—mortals were open books. This, to him, was nothing more than a game. The last thing Pestilence wanted was to get the boy sick—he’d been a pain but it was refreshing to get to talk to people every now and then. Even a ridiculous mortal. So he snapped, “Seriously, don’t.”

“How come?” Goddamn what was with human kids and their questions? Humanity had too many questions, their inquisitive minds ought to have been quelled. Pestilence briefly, and with a good deal of irritation, wondered if he could make a sickness that would stop that. A sickness that dulled that human instinct to ask questions one after the other.

He couldn’t explain why, not exactly, but the idea suddenly made him a little sad.

“Because, I—when I touch things they just, get sick. You know, like I’m contagious,” he surprised himself with the lie, but even more with the bitterness that tinged his tone. For all their faults, he thought that humanity was beautiful, and he could never touch it. Even staying as close as he was to the child at that moment was dangerous, wasn’t it? A single step and a touch, and that vibrant boy would be sicker than he’d ever been in his whole life. Pestilence curled his lip, suddenly disgusted with himself. Was this what his siblings longed for? The attention his sister so craved from the mysterious people that he didn’t even know existed—they destroyed things, and all for what? The approval of faceless people that were as substantial as wisps of smoke.

“Like, cooties or something?” The kid snorted, “Those don’t even exist!”

“Tch, cooties,” Pestilence rolled his eyes. “No, it’s more as though everything living that comes into physical contact with me meets a terrible fate. You understand?”

“That’s why you’re sad?” The question caught him off guard, and he stared at the small boy. Humans, who could get riled up over a few fevers and yet were quick to turn their noses up at hints of other more obvious sickly danger. Humans, who asked too many damn questions and stuck their noses in the business of others since the time they could form coherent sentences—they were damned perceptive. Always searching, thinking, dissecting the world around them. It was admirable, beautiful, and terribly breakable.

“Yes,” he finally replied. The boy frowned at him for a moment, before turning his large camera around in his hands and pointing it at his face. He beamed at the camera, tooth-gap showing, and clicked the shutter. The flash had Pestilence blinking and rubbing at his eyes, and he jerked back automatically when the boy’s hand extended toward him. The kid was shaking something, a photograph, and he held it toward him with a tiny smile.

“My dad gave this to me, so I could take pictures whenever I wanted! It’s not as nice as a hug,” the boy’s eyes were large as he extended his hand toward Pestilence. He was beaming at him, his solution came with a child’s simplicity. It was just a matter of this, “Still, you can keep this if you want. That way you can hold onto something and it won’t get sick.”

Cautiously Pestilence took the other end of the picture. The boy’s fingertips were close to his own, he could have brushed them so easily. It would have been a simple leaning forward, just a touch of the hands. He didn’t realize until he exhaled as he pulled the polaroid out of the child’s hand that he’d been holding his breath. The kid beamed at him again, expression mimicking the one in the photo.

“Thank you,” Pestilence peered down at the picture. The kid nodded, and then he was pelting down the hallway. An insignificant conversation likely already placed in some dark corner of his mind—years later, when Pestilence’s older brother met him, he probably wouldn’t even remember that moment. To him, who could touch nothing without it turning hideous, it meant the whole world. Pestilence pocketed the small picture and smiled.

The phone in his pocket chimed and Pestilence pulled it out with a frown. Impatient messages riddled the screen, he had texts from War and Famine as well as his older sister now. After a moment he clicked open his younger brother’s, frowning at the text in place.

TO: Pestilence

FROM: War

dude pesti u kno that deedee’s starting to stomp around rite?

like she’s peeved as heck man what’s taking so long?

she said she texted u like 5ever ago

Right, the mission. The thing, he had to go find a person in the hospital and make them sick. How much time had he wasted, talking to some kid? He suddenly wondered what War would have done in this situation—his hot-headed little brother who enjoyed watching mortals tear one another to pieces. Pestilence shouldn’t have stopped to talk to the kid, he shouldn’t have stopped at all. He had a job to do, after all.

TO: War

FROM: Pestilence

you guys are so impatient.

Pestilence replied, and after a heartbeat added, “also I’m telling Death you called her “Deedee” again” before he stalked down the hall toward his destination. The picture was still in his pocket, a gap-toothed boy grinning from the glossy square. He wondered those glittering eyes would judge him, if he continued on his way.

He pushed the door open, some young man was sitting on the bed with a nasty dog bite. Animal infections were good places to start with disease—they made nice building blocks for an outbreak, and it was easy enough to twist the infection to a mutation. Make something airborne and people started dropping like flies.

The guy didn’t notice him—people never did. They weren’t supposed to, not like the kid.

Pestilence frowned as he edged toward him, before pulling the picture out of his pocket. There was a reason, wasn’t there? For the kid to have seen him, to have stopped him—of all the mortals that could have crossed his path it was that child.

With a loud huff Pestilence turned and headed out of the room. He wasn’t sure what he’d tell his siblings—what excuse could he possibly come up with when he didn’t know why he was leaving himself? There was nothing to be said, Pestilence just knew he couldn’t bring himself to touch that man. He couldn’t make him sick, not with that picture in his pocket.

 

Temple Grove

By Alan Weltzien


In the Girard Grove fat larches,

frost-tipped and black-skirted,

flaunt cold nights and past fires.

Eyes trace dead tapering points,

 

lightning rods thrust skyward

above dusky clutches of branches.

Sun fires the white sheen up high,

mute stark canopy offset by

 

ridged, scorched trunks, sign

of flaming heat over centuries past.

I stumble, neck tilted, transfixed

by a spangled tier

 

I have never seen. Suddenly, warming

air relaxes frost’s hold, a larch

releases a bright spray, fleeting November

hatch, a flutter of crystals that curve

 

and sparkle below robin’s egg blue

sky, a host that trails into vapor.

From another tree, a pulse of sprites

Like a firework near the year’s

 

short end as it droops and slides

beyond sight seconds after it bursts.

Western larches puff a benediction

on this still Sunday morning as I stroll after my friend.

 

A solitary woodpecker, cream-breasted,

taps a tree drum, irregular rhythm,

pauses as it walks up and around the trunk

then resumes, the rat-a-tat resonates

 

over kinnikinick my boots brush,

across the community of barked columns.

As my fingers chill inside my gloves

I hold my breath before the accompaniment.

When Time Stood Still

By Joanna Avery


“All you do is hold it here. Mhm, just like that. Press your mouth against it, yes all the way. Okay now all you have to do is suck gently, but steadily. I’ll light it for you. Then when I take this part off, suck as hard as you can. Hold it in your mouth and then breath in deeply. You’ll probably cough, but as I always say; you have to cough to get off.”

My cousin Sylvie had always been the black sheep of the family. I don’t know what made me brave enough to spend the weekend with her and her friends. I mean, come on, me? The strait edged student that cried when she got a C? Who would rather show up to class with the flu than lay in bed and miss a lesson? My friends all told me to loosen up, have a little fun, it was our freshman year in college and we were meant to go a little wild. I just hadn’t been able to do it. That is, until my boyfriend broke up with me because I was “just so boring.”

I guess that’s what brought me here. I knew Sylvie would make me less boring, because everything about her radiated rebellion. Her black hair and washed out blue eyes, the scars on her arms, the holes in her dark jeans; she knew how to fit in.

“Whatever. Just let me try it,” I said bleakly, pretending not to care. That was cool, right? I took a deep breath and inhaled.

I think I must have done it right, because immediately I felt kind of… off, kind of slow. I leaned back onto the couch, and I suddenly realized that it was made of feathers, and that when I sat on them they floated off into the air and then popped, like bubbles. My head felt like it weighed about one million pounds, so I held it to the side to make it easier to keep on my neck. Someone close to me was giggling softly, probably at the floating feathers; actually it might have been me. I know at least that I was smiling, a great big smile that stretched so far across my face that I think it must have hung off the edges of my cheeks. I think everyone should smile like that at least once in their lives, because it feels so good. In fact, everything felt good. I don’t remember why I had ever resisted trying it before.

The room we were in seemed new; different. I no longer saw the grungy apartment littered with beer cans, but instead saw a place that was filled with excitement. The cheap, colorful posters on the chipped up walls spun in little circles. My ears buzzed with the faint sounds of people talking, but I couldn’t make out what anyone was saying. The coffee table where I was resting my feet had a pretty little bowl on it that swirled when I looked at it. It was filled with some kind of sparkling dust. Duh, my consciousness rolled its eyes at me, it’s the burnt up marijuana.

A man with an ugly cross necklace shoved a glass into my hand. Good, I was thirsty. I started to drink it and I guess I must have been higher than I thought because it burned my throat. Oh wait, I think it was alcohol. Yeah, that definitely makes sense, because after that everything started feeling a little bit blurry. Okay, a lot a bit blurry. It tasted gross but I wanted more, and so I got more. My phone buzzed and I took it out. I forgot to look at the message.

At some point we ended up on the roof, which was fine with me. The little room we were in had been getting hot and the cool night air that swept over the flat rooftop gave me a sense of freedom. There were more people here than I had thought. Nine, maybe ten shadows formed into faces and appeared on the roof with us. The once menacing and mysterious figures seemed somehow innocent now that we were outside. Wow, we were high up. I looked over the edge of the small wall that surrounded the roof and peered at the alleyway below. The ugly little section of town that we were in transformed before my eyes. Instead of seeing the desolate, poor little buildings; I saw the places in town where cool things happened.

I remember that at some point, I kept grabbing blurry, faceless people to take shots with me. No one complained. They were my best friends, I knew they were because they kept saying so. I don’t think I know their names though, but they probably won’t mind because I’m not sure if they know mine either.

I wondered how much time had passed so I grabbed my phone out of my pocket. For some reason my passcode was acting funny. It didn’t seem to be working and my fingers kept tripping over the moving numbers on the screen. When I finally got it unlocked, there was a message from my friend, which is weird because I don’t remember my phone going off. I don’t remember what the message said. I do remember that my phone was lying. It said that only fifteen minutes had passed since I’d gotten there. I think I need a new phone.

I lay down and I must have fallen asleep, but I think my eyes were open. My new friends must have left because it was quiet and peaceful for a moment. The night sky and reflecting street lights were all mashed up together, and it was all spinning around me so fast. It must have been what it felt like to look up from the bottom of a blender. Everything, the stars, the moon, the clouds, all slurred into a masterpiece of swirling color and moved around my head just like a smoothie. I closed my eyes and just felt. It was all still whirling around, but now it seemed more like ocean waves. Time didn’t exist for me.

Someone jerked me up to a standing position and I didn’t know what was happening for a long second. I had to force myself to focus on his face. Pockmarked and pale, with beady black eyes that had giant pupils.

“Truth or dare?”

All my friends appeared again, and actually I don’t think that they ever left.

“Girl you were tripping so hard, I told you we shouldn’t have slipped it to her Jonas, she can’t hang,” Sylvie laughed as she pulled me closer to the small group.

“You gonna play?”

I nodded with that same silly grin on my face as earlier. They didn’t even have to explain it to me. I already knew how this one went. I chose dare, and they dared me to kiss Jonas, the one with the black eyes. Yuck. He tasted sour, like someone with morning breath. Next, Sylvie had to tell us how many people she’d slept with. It was a lot. Frank, the one with tattoos on his neck, had to hold a lighter to his arm hair. Another girl had to tell us the hardest drug she’d taken and the guy sitting next to her had to eat an old cookie someone found.

Then we ran out of ideas. Someone pulled out a gun. No one even questioned it. I think Sylvie could tell that it scared me, because she put her hand on my shoulder and gave me that look. The look that said, don’t freak out in front of my friends. I couldn’t stop looking at the gun.

It was an old pistol that you see in movies. One with the six slots. I knew what we were going to play next. Jonas put a bullet into one of the slots. Everyone had to take a turn, he said, or else we weren’t friends anymore. Jonas went first. I think he was brave. He took the gun, spun the thing that held the bullet, and then cocked it back into place. Moving the gun slowly towards his head, he pulled the trigger with a crazy glint in his eye. Click. Nothing. The whole group let out a sigh, and since Jonas wasn’t hurt, everyone wanted to try next. We each got to spin it so everyone had the same chances. I was still scared. The gun was passed to Sylvie next. Grab, spin, pop, click. I would be last.

I couldn’t help but flinch every time someone pulled the trigger. It was the reflex of a sober girl that was now buried somewhere inside of a fucked up girl’s body. The gun seemed to be doing some seductive, twisted dance as is went around the circle, getting closer and closer to me. Grab, spin, pop, click. Finally it was my turn.

“I can’t do it,” I slurred, trying to push the gun away. I was going to throw up.

“I knew you’d chicken out. You’re so boring”

You’re so boring. You’re so boring. You’re so boring.

I grabbed for the gun, and Sylvie gave passed it to me without any hesitation. The gun looked natural in her hand, with the black nails, pale skin, and the pointy rings on her fingers. When I picked it up, it seemed so light, yet looked so wrong in my own clean, innocent hand. They had all done it though, so what was the problem with me trying it? I wasn’t boring, not anymore. Time had been going slow all night, but right then, it stood still. Spin… pop…

Click.

Relief soared through my veins as I realized that I had almost been crying. I don’t think I had been breathing that entire time, because my lungs suddenly couldn’t get enough air. I was the happiest I had ever been and this was now the best night of my life. I could almost dance with excitement; I wasn’t boring.

I dropped the gun with a laugh, and heard a blast. Everyone was looking at me funny and I don’t know why. That’s all I remember.

 

Balloon Song

” A poem written about what it would be like if our favorite songs were balloons. “

By Devan Petersen


If songs were like balloons

I wonder if people would tie them to their wrists

And carry them around for the world to see,

When they loved them more than anything else

 

I wonder if they’d let old ones go

Until they drifted up over clouds

And into deep and endless blue

The day that the lyrics didn’t whisper the same to them

 

I wonder if they’d collect dozens

Enough to lift their feet from the ground

And show everyone

The songs that were treasured most of all

Smith Rock State Park

” This piece is about when I made a road trip back where I lived most of my life. I account what it meant for me to move away, grow up, and live a different life. “

By Jared Probert


“Kirk and I went up this way once,” Lucas told me as we veered off the main trail, glancing around to make sure none of the park rangers were watching. Curiosity overcame caution in the summer of 2013 as I followed him off the beaten path onto something that could probably pass as a goat trail. Backpacks swayed with our steps, our breathing coming out in short bursts. “Up here is where he broke his glasses.”

“I wish I could’ve been there for that,” I say. “What is ol’ Kirk up to these days?”

“I haven’t talked to him in a while,” he says, “He’s not around.”

“Seen Ben?” I ask

He shakes his head. “No.”

 

As we went the side of the slope, I began to remember the day two years prior when I convinced my friends to take a Saturday all-day hike up through Smith Rock State Park in Oregon. There was Lucas and I, of course, as well as Kirk, our half-Ecuadorian and our very German Ben. We were all the small, nerdy type, similar builds, similar height. Ben was white with dark features, Kirk darker skinned with dark features, and Lucas blonde-haired and blue-eyed. We walked up and down nearly every inch of trail in that park. Once, we found a crevice in the rocks at the end of a trail. “We should come here for our birthday parties,” Ben had said optimistically, and the rest of us agreed. It would be a timeless tradition we dedicated to ourselves.

Unfortunately, within the next year, Ben and I both moved away: I moved to Montana, and the next year Ben moved to Washington. Lucas and Kirk eventually joined different high-school groups, Lucas to the popular kids and Kirk to the Christians. Back then, it didn’t really matter about sharing the same views. Our goals were different as well: Ben hoped to be a video game designer; Kirk wanted to be a missionary; Lucas wanted to live day by day: all I knew was that I loved reading. Our goals never really affected us, not in the first few years of high school, but after sophomore year, when we all moved away, our group changed. The clan fell apart, looking for something else to fill the gap.

 

My flashback ends on the trail with Lucas, and we both looked up to the rocky gap. “We climbed up through there,” Lucas told me.

There was enough space for us to climb up the middle, I supposed. I had been leading the way up the trail and started climbing. Using our backs and legs and the grip of our fingers, we slowly clambered up, step by step, taking time to find places in the rock where we could pull ourselves higher. We talked little on the way, refusing to huff and puff in front of each other, until I stopped. I couldn’t see any convenient way to approach it. “Here, let me go,” Lucas advised, “Kirk and I found the way last time.” As he showed me how they found a way through, he added, “This is where Kirk broke his glasses. A boulder came flying down and tore his spectacles to shreds. He made his way up here half blind.”

 

There was once a class field trip to Smith rocks, years ago. We knew we were the fastest travelers, gamer Ben, Christian Kirk, Lucas and I, but for whatever reason we were assigned to the slow group. With the unrelenting ambition of our youth, we passed people by on every turn that had extra space, keeping in our fast pack, a footrace up the trail against all of our peers. Eventually, we reached the people who thought they were the leaders, only to be challenged, and, of course, beaten. Our destination came closer and closer, and eventually we got to the top of the rock, waiting for the tiny slowpokes down below to make their way up to us. Rising up, it seemed easy to forget just how small we were, just as insignificant as those followers down there. We couldn’t see just how little we were from our own eyes, not unless we looked down at the rest of the group making way. We couldn’t see where we were going, where our lives would end up at; all we knew was that we had the instinct to climb to the top, if there even is a top.

 

In the crevice Lucas and I ventured through, the rock started to cut into our beaten hands, nearly drawing blood on the black stone. I could feel my legs start to cramp, sweat beading on my forehead. We both took a very brief break on a slab we could both sit on. A small gap of light came through. It was barely there, but there it was all the same. It was dark in that jagged space, dust particles settling as we talked about memories. It was like talking about the ocean or the moon or the top of the mountain inside a schoolhouse. None of it seemed real anymore, just out there somewhere, like our destination. With one last huff, we lifted ourselves up and headed straight for the top, only a glimmer of light to guide our way.

 

Before I left Oregon for good, I remember the four of us having a sort-of pizza party, complete with the four of us, skittle-pizza, and a few other friends that knew I would be leaving for Montana after that year. It was a nice place we were in, a place designed to make people feel as if they were in Old New York, complete with an antique-style setting and Black and White pictures of famous people I’m not old enough to remember. I remember Drake being there, Kyle, Sabrina, some other person I didn’t even know. It was the last day of school, the most agreeable day of the year.

The main four of us though, Ben, Kirk, Lucas and I, had known each other since middle school. Lucas and I become close friends, while Ben and Kirk did the same. High school is where we were mixed together, and one of us was seldom seen outside the library with the other three in tow. We all knew a day would come when we’d split up, and so this gathering was the last big hurrah before moving on. I didn’t know I would look back on this day, not while traveling to a new place, a new world, and think of myself being in darkness without being fully able to grasp it.

Looking back on it, eating skittle-pizza in a place I couldn’t name, it seems too unreal. Something dissolved, absent. Something too gone.

 

That day, Lucas and I took a final break at the top of the rock, breathing the free, sunlit air with the top of the crevice just below us. We passed time tossing rocks down the trail that swept past us, the ones used by what we considered to be the ‘regular folks’ with no sense of adventure. The sound of the falling rocks echoed throughout the park, and our break turned to the boredom of the conquerors with nothing left to conquer. Before we headed out, though, we looked down the side of the cliff we had climbed up, and looked down at all the tiny people, the multi-colored cars, the mighty river roaring far below us, all bathed in the light of the same sun.

It’s a great feeling, knowing we started way down there and ended way up here. It’s a moment I wish could last forever, like when the dog finally catches the car it has been chasing for hours and hours on end. I wish to hold it like a trophy, put it up above the fireplace, keep it from being so far away. But there’s another car to chase, one with my name on the license plate, and a different one for Lucas.

 

For most of the time I had visited, I stayed with Lucas and his family in their new home. It was a big yellow house at the end of a cul-de-sac, with just enough space for him, his parents, and his five other siblings of the time. I was never able to see Ben or Kirk, as they were both out of state, Ben with his family, Kirk on a Missionary trip. I remember saying goodbye and heading out the door to my car, just about to drive all the way back to Boulder, Montana from Redmond, Oregon. Like climbing to the top of the rock, it seemed we had both conquered the world, and now, it was time for me to succeed in some other new place. Before I got into my car, I remembered I had forgotten my pen, which wasn’t a big deal except that I tend to run low on writing supplies. So I turned around and opened the door again, and Lucas was there at the window. He handed me my pen. “Thanks,” I said, and again, “goodbye.” I left his house, got into my car, and prepared for my long drive from Oregon to Montana, not knowing that I would fall prey to a powerful nostalgia, falling deeper and deeper until it was too small to see.

Lucas watched me as I drove away. That was the last time I ever saw him.

I’m Not Your Small-Town Girl

” How I Failed to Woo a South Korean and Had to Dance With Pasty White Boy at Prom “

By Tala Fehsel


She could have showed off more leg in a pair of basketball shorts than she did through the slits in her dress and she had better rhythm moving out on the tennis court than the dance floor, but that didn’t matter to him. He couldn’t dance with her in the middle of a game, tap her doubles partner on the shoulder and ask “Can I cut in?” The world screamed to him now from the speakers that this was his chance; this would be the tender moment they would share where afterwards he chased her out into the street and the rain and caught her there the way boys catch girls on the playground. So he hung back, watched her, waited for the river of music blaring from the balcony above to slow so he could slip in to the current leading straight to her.

This is a good story from his perspective.

This would be his narrative of courage, of daring, of the scene from the end of every high school movie where he works up the nerve to ask her and that’s all it takes—she looks up and sees his hair combed back and his collared shirt with the red carnation perched in the breast pocket of his blazer like a little cardinal and she wonders how she never wanted him before and in a moment everything changes and the guy gets the girl—just like that, just like a story.

I am “the girl” in this story, and his story. But it’s not “the” story. It’s not “that” story.

I am not third-person. I am sixteen and it’s not my story and it’s not about courage. It’s about cowardice, and being too afraid to run away, and too afraid to hurt that boy and change from “the girl” to “the bitch” in his coming-of-age narrative. It’s about being too afraid to admit I hate the way dresses make me feel and dancing fills me with trepidation but the thought of being left behind scares me even more. It’s about being too afraid to stay curled up at home and miss what all the movies have told me will be the defining time of my life even though it’s the one-year-anniversary of my mom’s death and all I want to do is breathe and squeeze myself into an empty girl-shaped-space and think about the hush.

Nothing is quiet here.

Of course there’s music and people at the dance. They’ve clipped speakers to the stripped cedar railing of the balcony and the bass notes hum in the wood like black flies in summer. The beat is still fast; hands and wrists and arms are still waving in the air as girls flash their legs and flash their teeth, but he’s not watching them. Beneath the railing, posters of a city skyline dangle from the balcony like a flimsy fourth wall or a two-way mirror. I can see couples who’ve slipped their way behind them every time they flutter. This night is easy for them. I wonder what the chances would have been of hitting someone like Polonius if I stabbed at random through the vinyl. We skipped Hamlet in English class

He turns back when the music changes. Those tell-tale keyboard chords come on. He knows it. It’s perfect. Everyone knows Journey. I don’t. The communal groan of “Slow song!” that rises around me as couples grab for one another does is my only warning bell and then the other singles are slipping away from me and the dance floor like water through my fingers. I am exposed and I am afraid, but I am still slower than the opening chords and he is pushing his way through the newly-opened path through the not-so-crowded crowd. It’s already too late.

“Just a small-town girl…”

He stops in front of me. He asks me to dance. I am not aware of his face at all in the moment—only his shoulders, vast and rectangular and his body filling the space of my escape like the locked door at the end of a hallway. I am holding a wooden fan and I don’t know what to do with it, or my hands, and I’m trying to point to it and say I can’t put it down but the lyrics are coming like a timer winding down and I have to make my choice by the second line and I feel my mouth say fine.

“Livin’ in a lonely world…”

“What’s this song?” I babble. I am not fine. My fan digs into his shoulder, black and distant as a tsunami. “I don’t know it.”

“Oh, you don’t? ‘Don’t Stop Believing.’ It’s Journey,” he says and tries to sing along to prove he knows. “He took the midnight train going anywhere…” I’m cringing because he’s one of those people who take choir once in junior high and think they’re ready for American Idol.

I don’t see the carnation. I don’t see the tux. I don’t see anything because all I can see is his face like a blur because I don’t want to look. His existence sums up to the horrible oppressive feeling of his fingertips on either side of my waist and the respectful distance between our bodies that’s a space which screams like it’s dying for oxygen and the only way I can fill it is by talking about anything, everything.

“Just a city boy born and raised in south Detroit…”

O-kay,” I cut him off and he looks at me like he’s that city boy and I’m his small-town girl and I would run if his big soft nervous hands weren’t a ball and chain nestled on either side of my belly just above my hips while Journey cries “— a smell of wine and cheap perfume” from the speakers in four-chord indifference. He doesn’t smell bad. I wish he did. Somehow it would be better if he reeked of body spray or body odor but the subtle musk of sweat and dusty fabric and dampness from the rain, in its honesty, is sickening as sentiment.

“For a smile they can share the night…”

“How long is this song?” I ask, trying to distract myself. “Strangers—waiting—” In a minute I ask again. I ask again and again. I don’t know how this makes him feel. “How long is this—how long—”

“Streetlights, people—living just to find emotion…”

Every lyric I can make out gives me literal nausea. I wish I knew “Don’t Stop Believing,” so I’d know what sick significance this meant to the boy alone at Prom like all those movies starting to go wrong (Óh the movie never ends) and I don’t believe it will ever end as that guitar solo goes on and on (On and on and on and on…) and we rock and circle in place like teetering cardboard boxes.

“Hold onto the feelin’…”

The song is four minutes long. I hold on.

When the beat changes, a cheer signals that our slow dance is at an end. As Journey fades away and the crowd floods back in, I break from him like I’m breaching for air after having been held underwater by the shoulders, by the waist. I don’t know if I still believe in the movies.

It’s raining outside. The asphalt is shiny. I don’t run out in it. My friends and I wait for them to play Ke$ha for a while, and when they don’t, we leave.

Victory Through Persistence

” A family narrative. “

By Tala Fehsel


My dad grew up dividing his time between the suburbs of Los Angeles and his grandparents’ ranch. He moved into a dormitory in college, and then a mobile home, and then a downtown hotel in Portland, Oregon. Later, he taught himself to sail and lived on his sailboat, renting dock-space by the month in San Pedro and sailing out to the island on weekends. He lived in condos in Maui and Kaui, renting out motel rooms while working everywhere from New Orleans to the Virgin Islands. He lived in a tipi with a cat and a rabbit while traveling from McCall all over Southern Idaho. Later, he turned north towards Sandpoint, repairing an abandoned home near the train tracks for rent.

After he bought his own property, closer to the Montana border, my dad built our house. He did it himself. The braces underneath the window ledges in our house are shaped like my mom’s legs. My dad traced them when he was building the addition, expanding his little workshop to suit his expanding family. He made her lay down and traced all around her legs from thigh to heel (toes pointed, knees bent) and sanded them so they were smooth to the touch. They’re part of the house—it took me years to realize they were there, holding everything up. Until I finally left for college three years ago, the house he built was my only home. He has had many.

When I go “home” now, I go to him.

Without a breath, it all falls back into the old routine. We take ourselves out of rhythm but we fall right back in like a hitch in a circadian cycle, like the flow of seasons. He would always wake up early. Every morning. I would hear the front door open and close and by the time I was up—around 10AM— he’d have come back from the forest. He was always busy with something.

One spring, when the tulips were first butting their heads through thawing topsoil and the air was growing dense with moisture from the last of the melting snow, it was slugs.

“I killed twenty slugs today,” he’d tell me. If I asked why, or what good he thought it would do, he’d cross his arms and shrug his shoulders and frown at me. “Look,” he’d say, “The way I figure it, every slug I kill out there is one slug that won’t be able to reproduce. If they can’t lay eggs, they won’t make more slugs. If I kill twenty slugs a day, that’s a hundred and forty slugs a week. If I do that for a month, that’s…” he’d trail off, thinking, “… four times that. Way I figure, at this rate, there won’t be any slugs left to reproduce at all.”

And it worked. For years, I never saw a slug around our house. Gone were the times of leaves like lace, like swiss; the plants unfurled their petals without fear.

Victory through persistence. It should be my dad’s mantra.

In the summer, when the wailing of grasshoppers in the field filled the air and the sun burned brown holes in our patchwork-quilt lawn, he would turn to the knapweed instead.

Spotted knapweed, the variety “native” to North Idaho, is practically impossible to control, much less eradicate. I studied noxious weeds of Idaho in seventh grade, which was enough background for me to know it was a landowner’s curse. The plant is carcinogenic, inedible to practically every species, and can regenerate from any portion of the root left underground. The seeds are viable for up to seven years. Seven years ago, my dad began digging them up by hand.

“I dug up seventy knapweed today,” He’d tell me when he came back inside (at 10AM) after I’d already gotten up, slicing up a pear for breakfast at the kitchen counter. He’d be sweaty but triumphant, covered in dirt. “I’ve been out there all morning. Digging knapweed.”

My dad tells me the weed, which resembles a small, neon-purple tuft on a long stem with spindly gray leaves, was introduced intentionally to America by a European immigrant who loved the bright blossoms covering up his hillsides. “One guy,” he emphasizes. I can almost see him shaking his head. I can see his thought process—if one guy can introduce an entire invasive species, who’s to say that one guy can’t get rid of it as well?

“Look,” I remember him explaining to me when he first began his project, much in the way he had with the slugs. “The way I figure it, even if I don’t get all of the root, even if I just cut every one off from the top, it doesn’t matter if I can’t kill it. If I dig it up before the bloomers go to seed, it can’t reproduce. If I dig up seventy knapweed every day, that’s four hundred and ninety knapweed this week. That’s all knapweed that isn’t spreading its seed.”

When I ask him again, he explains to me how he first began the process; piling five or six pickup loads onto black plastic so that the deadly seeds—each individual plant can produce thousands—wouldn’t hit the ground. He began digging them out around the house to keep them from spreading and observed within two years that most of them had disappeared, at least until they “got ambitious” on the far side of the gulch. He claims he observed annual success, estimating a drop from over 2,000 flourishing noxious weeds on the property to about 200 “puny small ones.”

And so it worked. Those bright violet starbursts I used to see dotting the dry grasses winked out one by one. “I have won,” my dad officially states. The meadow is full of harmless daisies now. He doesn’t seem to believe it. Knapweed haunts him even now. “I never pass one without coming back to eradicate,” he tells me. “I win. Till I miss one.” He still gets up early in the morning and ventures deeper into the woods, searching for neon purple blossoms.

In the fall every year, when the musky smell of damp leaves filled the air and the mornings leave frost on our windowpanes, his focus would shift to the orchard.

“Now, I don’t want the bear to come by and knock down the tree this year,” he’d warn me as we stacked up piles of brown paper grocery sacks at the base of each tree and wrestled the pear-picker out from behind rows of rakes and gardening shears. The pear-picker, which lacks a more formal title, is a hooked set of claws over a wire basket on the end of a long handle. “So we have to make sure to pick every pear. If we leave even one on the tree, the bear will smell it, and he’ll climb up the tree to get it and bust it. Because he’s stupid.”

The bear was stupid. Unlike the slugs and knapweed, persistence (in this case) never worked. We’d take turns hugging the trunk around the middle and rapidly jerking back and forth until the branches shook and the ripe pears tumbled down like speckled grenades. After that, we’d circle the trees, eying the branches covered with green pear-colored foliage in search of real pears to hook down. We could spend hours balancing on the top step of a rickety wooden step-ladder, swinging at a hard-to-reach fruit at the top of the tree.

Every year, we’d pick the pear trees clean. Every year, the bear came around, smelled pears—the whole tree smelled like pears, because it was a pear tree—and tried to climb it. Every year, he broke off a branch, or pushed down the trunk, and walked away with nothing to show for it. My dad would get up early in the morning and walk out to the orchard with all the broken twigs and leaves on the ground and survey the annual damage. Some battles just can’t be won.

We waited for the pears to turn yellow before we cut them up to make chips.

I have pear chips from 2012, the year I graduated high school and the first year my dad shook the pear trees and cut up the pears alone. The pear chips from 2011, the year my dad committed slug genocide, are gone because he began packing them in my lunch every day during my senior year. The pear chips from 2010, the year my mom died from cancer, are also gone. The pear chips from 2006, however; approximately when my dad formally began his knapweed extermination project, are still there. Nobody wants to eat them. They are black.

We keep things like that. Our family always has. When I was very young, my mom found a perfectly heart-shaped potato chip in the bag of Lays she was eating. She was thrilled. We put it in a crystal case. It’s still there. It hasn’t turned black—it seems strangely preserved by salt and, frozen in time with its signature combination of flavors and seasonings. Beneath its crystal lid it remains unchanged; as impeccably heart-shaped as the day my mom found it.

In the winter, everything is dead. There are no plants to kill and no plants to harvest, but my dad still gets up early in the morning and makes a fire. Before the snow gets deep and the icicles stretch all the way from our shingles to the flowerbed where the tulips used to grow, he stacks wood.

When I was younger (back when the black pear chips were still yellow) he used to chop the wood himself. I would stand outside with him in hat and coat and gloves and stack the split logs in the bed of his pickup. He would tell me about red fir and tamarack and birch and how they burned at the highest grade and I would tell him about the book I was writing. He has always burned what falls on the property regardless, breaking his back over each cord of wood to heat our home.

Now he is older. He can spear a slug and dig up a root and shake a pear tree, but he can no longer swing an axe. He buys “Pres-to-Logs” instead. The log mill in the next town makes them out of sawdust. They’re sold by the ton and priced by weight, running at about $225 per pallet. My dad buys boxes of the broken pieces for a quarter of the price, filling the back of his pickup with a bizarre mixture of lengths and widths too chaotic for commercial market. We have to sort them as we stack, log after log, so they fit snugly end-to-end in their container. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes I still talk about writing with him. He always listens.

I am older too. I am only home in the summer, and so is he. I study and he travels. His house is mobile now, a travel trailer circling Lake Havasu, Arizona. He’s lived on the waterfront in four states. He tells me it’s his favorite. He currently writes to me from the Sea of Cortez, where he can see the ocean. I live off the college campus and commute each day to class. I still can’t really swim.

We are home when we are together. The tulips are done blooming by the time we return. So are the pear blossoms—the bear never knocks the trees down for long. Other trees are always falling down in wind-storms and my dad will find some way to cut them up. He throws our compost down the jagged holes where their roots used to be and I see thick slime-trails glistening around them when I go outside after 10AM, when I wake up. The slugs are back. The knapweed is gone. On rainy days, which are cold, we burn Pres-to-Logs.

The house seems unchanged. The potato chip is still there. So are the pear chips from 2006. My mom’s legs are still there, holding everything up. We’ll always come back. We’re persistent.

Uke

” When I have a hard time coming up with ideas, I will pick up my ukulele and play it until something comes to mind. “

By Victoria Smithson


The plastic, out-of-tune strings on my free Harmony ukulele

resonate semi- sweet chords

that bounce off of my computer screen.

 

I only know one song by heart

but damn I play it well,

search for inspiration in the fake red wood.

 

The pleading noise from the sound hole

drowns out shouting from my trailer home.

I focus on the cheesy white music note rosette

and the painted- on pick guard.

 

After a few strokes I crank the tuning pegs again

the strings groan but obey.

so I continue to strum with my felt pick

until an idea strikes me.

Lunchtime

By Alan Weltzien


In the wide passageway at the assisted living

residents gather well before lunchtime,

drawn by tendrils of fried ham and baked

puddling that swirl past their nostrils,

 

a dampened clatter of pots and pans, of forks

and knives coming to rest aside white plates.

Wheechairs roll, others push their walkers

as noses and heads lift

 

in anticipation of high noon, each reaches

their assigned seat with assigned neighbors,

mostly women large or shrunk. Anything new?

Any new blouses or skirts or pants?

 

Likely not. Instead, familiar patterns and small bowls

of mounded compote, conversation nearly yesterday’s

or last week’s. Each salts or peppers

sparingly, makes some allowance for foibles.

 

After the day’s highpoint, reverse migration

and diaspora to rooms, to TV or crafts or

naps until the final gather. My mother-in-law,

I’m told, arrives last and lingers longest.

 

–Magnolia Place,

Union City, TN