The Bookends Review Love!

My story “Something in the Way” is now live on The Bookends Review! I put a lot into this story, so to see it in a mag like this feels fantastic.

(Also, for those of you who want to geek out and sample some of Here’s Waldo early, this is the first story I’ve gotten published that is word-for-word a chapter from that novel.)

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Karen

Either you were a civilian, or you were a veteran. There was no in between for Karen. Never knew where the next meal was coming from as a kid? Beer bottles made brown explosions on the wall during fights between M & D? Veteran. Got the crusts cut off from the lunches your mom made you every morning? Taken on annual summer vacations that you complained about for being “lame”? Civilian.

While most people would consider being adopted as qualifying you for veteran status, Karen felt like she still hadn’t earned it. So she started going on undercover missions. Did shit like mess up her hair, forego makeup, wear her crappiest clothes, and panhandle. On the missions when she was homeless like this, she’d talk with the actual homeless, level with them as one of their own. When her mission was complete, she’d divvy up her earnings amongst the people who actually needed it and head back home. When she did this enough times in her hometown, she’d take the Amtrak to other cities, other states, so as not to arouse suspicion.

She’d watched Titicut Follies. While she assumed that the treatment of those who’d found themselves in the psych ward had no doubt improved since then, she still needed to know what it was like. So she stopped at the 7-Eleven that was a block down from the nearest hospital and bought three of their strongest energy drinks. Chugged them, one after the other, to induce a “manic state.” Left her ID at home so they couldn’t alert M & D. It was during the summer, so Karen was even able to tell her parents that she’d be staying the week at a friend’s. Waited a half hour or so for the energy drinks to take effect. Figured it was time to check in once her vision got hazy and her heart felt like it was going to beat out of her chest.

She’d psyched herself up beforehand, thought she’d need to to make it convincing. Thing is, once she got into that reception area and the lights were too bright and she met the bland indifference of the receptionist and felt like she might pass out, she didn’t need to act. Could barely get out that she’d been having suicidal thoughts, constant panic attacks on top of that. And then she was made to wait, for how long she didn’t know. And then she was led to a concrete hole of a room, a room with nothing more than a metal slab that you were meant to lie on and a smattering of cameras. The kind with a door that locked once it closed.

For some reason, they put her in the wing that housed those who were prone to violence. At least, that’s what Karen assumed once she’d witnessed two fights within a half hour of being there. Most of the people in this wing had done things you’d usually be arrested for, but had done them in a way that freaked out the cops involved to the point where they didn’t want to deal with them. Stuff like resisting arrest by biting. Taking off their shirt before getting in a fight, then dropping their pants too. These people gave the rest of the patients a bad name, Karen decided.

Maybe she’d been placed there because of her high anxiety. Who knows. But they eventually realized their mistake and placed her in a wing with other suicidals, mostly quiet types who either ate too much at meals or not enough. Who had to excuse themselves from groups because of crying spells. Who stayed in bed for days at a time. Who sported thousand yard stares and took a few seconds to respond when you called their name.

These were people who would sit down next to you and strike up a convo if they sensed that you needed one. And that’s the funny thing about veterans of that kind of shit: They could always sense that you needed one. Once you’ve been to the depths and back, you become acutely aware of others’ internal states. Sensitive to their inner sufferings.

They kept her longer than anyone else. It wasn’t because she hammed it up or anything. She ditched the act after day four, but apparently they saw something that she didn’t and decided to keep her there longer.

It’s the silent moments you have to reflect that get to you. One after another, her new friends left, slipping her their number scrawled on the backs of group therapy schedules, scratched in with the nubs of pencils.

She was encouraged to share in group, and she did. She went in with a whole character bio and story ready, but all of that fell away after she made her friends. Making it all up didn’t seem right when they were letting everything out. So she talked. About finding out she was adopted as a kid. About collecting everything she could carry in a backpack and running away. About getting picked up by a cop and brought home three days later. About not being able to talk for another three days after that, memory wiped. All of it.

Karen left with a prescription for an SSRI she’d never take, a hospital wristband she’d keep in a lockbox with the numbers after she’d put them into her phone. They gave her fare for the bus, the card for a therapist who accepted Medicaid. She hadn’t planned on riding the bus till its final destination, but that’s what happened. She got off at the end, caught a bus going back home, and looked out the window. Watched the way that dusk played with the sky, purple segueing into black.

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Into the Labyrinth

tunnel

We wake and stretch and find ourselves together. Lula takes my pages and reads them before I can tell her not to, by buglight, and when she’s done she doesn’t say anything. She puts them away, stands, walks to the far wall, and says Jesus, even though I’m pretty sure she doesn’t believe. I’m pretending I’m more in a stupor than I actually am. She comes over. I get up and hand her a buglamp, grab one for myself too. She takes it and walks down the hallway, past the endless procession of identical concrete cube rooms, lightning bugs blinking spots on the wall to light the way. I reach her and touch her arm. I say:

“I’m sorry.”

“This is kind of like how it was underneath the Center. Maybe a little spookier, but pretty much the same.”

“The Center?”

“We had matches, though. All we could sneak in. The light would go out and you’d get your fingers burned if you weren’t careful. I always was, but some of the other girls weren’t.

“They’d sneak cigarettes because that’s the only way I’d let them come with me. I knew my way around underneath the Center and they didn’t. We called it the labyrinth. I called it that, anyway. I don’t know what they called it.

“Anyway, after a while I figured I’d smoke the cigs instead of using the matches since the matches always went out. Cigarettes lasted longer.

“They weren’t all cutters. I mean, I was, but some of them were like bulimic or anorexic or something like that. We had this doctor. Dr. Charon, and he’d lead us in what he liked to call Allegorical. He’d tell us to speak our Hurt in one word. He told us it was capital H Hurt. He had a bunch of weird games like that. I don’t think any of it helped. I remember one day he asked for my one word and I just left and went under the Center, into the labyrinth, and I smoked my cig, and pulled out the bobby pin I took from one of the RNs and sharpened it on the concrete and started stabbing it into my ankle. I had thick socks that hid the blood, is why I chose the ankle. In case you’re wondering.

“Anyway, I made like little constellations with the pin, in my ankle. No one knew about it. I’d come up and Charon wouldn’t ask. Just welcomed me back into the group.

“The other girls always talked about boy problems, friends who were dicks to them, that kind of shit. I was there ‘cause my mom had cancer and so I cut myself. There were other reasons, but that was mostly it.

“Anyway, when I’d feel really shitty there was this one girl. Liza. We were roommates. She was there because when she was four and five and six her dad molested her. Had her wear dresses and sit on his lap when her mom wasn’t home and would have to adjust her clothes for her, under her dress. She told me all of this. Well it went on for a few years and then just stopped. For a little while after that she could be a normal kid. Or about as normal as you can be after something like that. Her dad drank for a while, then didn’t, then drank again. Her mom wouldn’t leave him alone with her. She never said anything about it, but she didn’t have to. Liza’s words, mind you. So anyway, it was okay for a few years. Until Liza started developing. Keep in mind, when I knew her she was gorgeous. Liza would never admit it, of course. She’d say she just looked normal. I knew her when I was fourteen and she was fifteen. She started developing around twelve or so. Becoming a woman and all that. Meanwhile her mom and dad’s marriage was pretty much nonexistent. Her dad would ‘work late’ till like ten p.m. At first he’d call and say he’d be late. Then the calls dropped off. Then he didn’t even bother giving excuses. So her mom started ‘working late’ too.

“Anyway, eventually Liza’s mom was out more than her dad was, and she was developing, and he started hanging around the house, after work, reeking of booze. Started conveniently doing the laundry across the hall when Liza was in the shower. Their bathroom door had one of those old timey keyholes you could peek through if you wanted to. When Liza realized this, it’d already been like weeks of this going on, but then she started hanging her towel over the knob to cover up the hole.

“So then her dad said she couldn’t lock the door anymore. Said it was a fire hazard, or that she could pass out, and what would he do then, just let his own daughter die? She left it unlocked.

“She was thirteen the first time her father raped her. Thirteen and in the shower and singing some song by Christina Aguilera and he pushed her against the wall. Stopped her singing. Left the shower running. Got his clothes all wet. And she grabbed at the curtain and pulled half of it down but he wouldn’t stop.

“This went on for a year. Like clockwork. When Liza locked the door, he busted the door open. Fixed the lock before her mom got home. When she stopped showering he went into her room at night and did it while she was sleeping. Woke her up. When she locked her bedroom door he jimmied it open with a screwdriver.

“It got so death was preferable to life. She fantasized about killing herself. Tried a few times. Or at least said she tried. I think that fighter part of her refused to let her do it. No matter how bad it got. Finally, it was either she’d die or she’d tell someone. She was resourceful. She found a hotline. Told them everything. Gave the cops the whole story when they came. Detailed everything. Her dad was arrested. Tried. Convicted. And so she went to the Center and her dad went away.

“When I met her she was doing pretty well. Really well, actually, considering the kind of shit she went through. You couldn’t meet a more positive chick. The whole time her father had been raping her she’d gotten super skinny. Scary skinny. But when she came to the Center she ate healthy, drank a lot of water, went on walks around the grounds and told her Hurt in one word, spoke at every Allegorical. She was like the model resident, but none of us were jealous or anything. She was the kind of person you wanted to see succeed no matter what. No matter who you were. Everyone loved her.

“But she went out on a belt anyway.

“I found her first. Her toes were purple and she was swaying, back and forth. Like she was on a swing or something. She wasn’t on restriction, which is why they let her have a belt. In case you’re wondering. ‘Cause I was wondering. I was wondering how come they didn’t take away her belt and her laces and her sheets and tie her hands behind her back if this is what she was capable of. If this is what she’d do to herself. I hit Charon in the face and I punched a window out and I clawed the wallpaper and knocked over everything I could knock over and I cried till I couldn’t cry anymore and could only sleep, right where I was crying, on the floor. I’ve never cried like that in my life. I don’t cry.

“I didn’t know why she did it. Still don’t. But nothing will change what happened. Nothing will bring her back. And I was hurt for a long time after that. I couldn’t deal. And I hated Liza, wished I’d never met her, all that.

“But then I stopped hating her. I stopped trying to blot out the memories we had and I saw her how she was, before she went out on a belt. In her stories and her smile and the way her eyes lit up when the sun came in just right and it looked like they went from green to blue, just like that.

“Okay.

“Okay, I’m done.”

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You’ll Have to Save Me

Alone

It’s going to be a Harry Potter party. I get my costume ready in the bathroom: hike up my skirt, get my makeup right, tousle my hair to look like Hermione’s. You’re watching Netflix in the other room, trying to make it seem like you don’t care. You’re still mad about me flirting with my coworker last week. I don’t know why I did it, but that didn’t stop me from calling you a baby. I don’t know why I’m doing the things I’m doing anymore.

I thought of inviting you, of introducing you to my new work friends, maybe trying to mend what’s been broken. But I didn’t. What I did was accept the invite, order the pieces I was missing from my costume, and hide the Amazon boxes once they got here. What I did was change my mind, wait till you got home, and try the costume on where I knew you’d see me. And the way you tried to be nonchalant about hanging up your coat, but how your eyes trailed over me as you walked over to the closet. And when you didn’t say anything, when you started to walk away, how I asked you what you thought. How I looked. How your eyes showed your hurt, but you said I looked good. How you opened your mouth to say something, to ask something, but stopped yourself.

It’s gotten so I’ll stay at work till 7 or 8, tell myself I need to stay late to prepare for the next day, but I know that isn’t true. I know that I just want to walk past my coworker one last time and imagine what he’d smell like on top of me. I know that he’s staying late on purpose too, that we’re moving past each other over and over, closer and closer, waiting for one of us to bump into the other. He’s single, and I think about this as I fiddle with my engagement ring, as I pee one last time before heading home, staying in the stall so long that the lights automatically go off.

We haven’t fucked in weeks. I find an excuse every time, and when you remind me how long it’s been, I go to the bathroom and use my vibrator. The last time I did this, I walked back in the room to find you jerking off, not bothering to hide it under the covers. You left yourself out for a while even after I walked in, and I acted like I’d seen nothing. I got into bed and under the covers, and when your foot touched mine, I told you to move over.

When we do touch, it’s in the form of a play fight, and we grapple and vie for control because to hug and to hold would be too much at this point. But by the end of these play fights, we’re sweaty and tired, leaning up against each other like spent boxers, and you’ll try to sneak a kiss. I’ll jerk my head away and tell you how sweaty you are. If you’re lucky, I’ll pretend to be dead weight, and you’ll have to grab me and pull me back up. You’ll have to save me.

I think of all the ways I could end it. I could sit you down over dinner, or call you when I’m at my mom’s, or text you after work. I could pack up all my things and leave without saying a word. I could do these things, any of them, without hesitation. Don’t think I couldn’t.

When it’s time to go to the party, I rush to get my shoes on before you can get up and go to the door. I just say, “bye,” and I leave. I sneak out the bottle of Jim Beam I’ve stashed in my purse and nurse it for courage before getting on the CTA bus.

When I get there, I do that thing where I hug the wall, near my friends, and smile and nod when someone I know walks by and acknowledges me. My coworker spots me eventually, pours something I can’t see into a cup and brings it to me. He challenges my HP knowledge with some trivia, which I ace, but I smile anyway. He refills my cup and challenges me to a duel. Produces two wands and hands one to me. My cheeks burn as I smile and shake my head, but he challenges me loud enough that everyone hears. Gets everyone to clear out of the way and form a circle around us. It’s over in seconds: one shout of “Expelliarmus” and he tosses his wand high in the air. I send out my Patronus for good measure, but he surrenders.

An hour goes by, maybe two. My coworker and I stop drinking and just talk. When the party starts to thin out, he offers to give me a ride home. No sense in taking the CTA and dealing with weirdos, he says. I say yes.

When I tell him the address, he says he’s just a couple blocks away. That we’re practically neighbors. There’s silence for a while, and he says something about stopping by his place for coffee. So we can wake up. I say yes.

When he’s inside of me, all I can think of is our first date, sneaking into the mall with you after watching a movie, getting into the playplace that was meant to be a forest and lying on the grass carpet as Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars” piped out of the mall speakers. How we were silent. How we had smiles, matching, unaware of the future. How we followed the song’s advice and just lay there, our fingers intertwined.

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Maya

DelhiSunrise

Madhan called last night and told me he needed to see me, called late at night so that I had to pull the phone’s cord as far as it would go away from Mama and Baba’s room, so they wouldn’t hear us talk. They thought I’d stopped talking to him after they told me to, but they were wrong.

I haven’t gotten any sleep since I hung up the phone. I got back home from night school, slipped in quiet so Mama and Baba wouldn’t hear, hid my books, and Madhan called right after, as if he knew. Maybe he did. I don’t know. That boy seems to know so much.

The night moves into morning, and I spend it by sitting on the grass, in a field near my home, watching the way the purple of the sky turns to pink, the stars disappearing into nothing. This place I’ve been to with Madhan so many times before, lying on the grass and looking up at the sky, far enough from New Delhi’s center that it’s quiet, close enough that the city’s lights erase some of the starlight.

Madhan said he’d be here by sunrise, like the times before, when we’d shield our eyes from the light and watch the city come to life, the stray dogs rising up from the ground like steam to wind their way through the city and find another meal. But Madhan isn’t here. I told myself I wouldn’t cry, but my eyes are clouding, letting the light take over everything. I’m standing up, the dew on the grass clinging to my feet, and I’m putting my sandals back on, trying to figure out which way to go.

I get to the bus stop, this bus that will take me to Madhan, that will get me the answers that he suddenly doesn’t want to give. I sit on the bench and wait, but after a minute I’m back up, pacing, waiting for the bus as the sun rises into my eyes and blinds me. Finally, I’m not even pacing, just standing, and this old dog comes up to me with his tail between his legs, big eyes looking at me, begging for food.

I put my hands out to show him I have nothing, but he persists. He sniffs both hands to make sure that I’m not hiding something, then walks behind me and sits next to the bench. I take it as a sign and take a seat, reach out and pet his head, scratch his nose, his gray whiskers moving as he smiles at me. I can see the dog’s ribcage, and he limps on one of his hind legs, but this old dog doesn’t seem to mind. He just sits there next to me with his tail wagging, brushing the dirt from the ground like a child who doesn’t know how to use a broom. I pet him so we can both forget for a while.

When the bus is in sight, I want to leave this stop and this old dog and go back to the field, back home. Somewhere else. But I don’t. I get on the bus, and I pay my fare, and I take a seat, and I wait for the stop that will take me to Madhan.

The beggar children try to stop me everywhere I go once I get off the bus. They cup their hands into little ponds that are waiting to be filled. When they reach out their hands, I hold them briefly and apologize. I have nothing to give.

I get to Madhan’s door and knock. It takes a few minutes, but finally he comes to the door and asks who’s there. When I tell him it’s me, he waits a while before opening up, peeks through the crack between the door and the frame to make sure it’s actually me. Opens it up the rest of the way and says nothing, only looks at me.

He puts on some tea and offers me a seat. We don’t talk until the tea is done, and he pours my tea with shaking hands. He starts by saying, “You know how I feel about you.” When he says this, my stomach drops. He sips his tea so he won’t have to say anything more, and I do the same. Finally, he says, “I have to do it.”

It’s his parents, he says. They’ll never forgive him, never let this go. They hadn’t approved of me, and they never would. Anyway, it’d be better for me. This way, we wouldn’t strain things with our parents. He could marry who they wanted him to marry, and I could marry Suddho. And when I tell him I don’t want to marry Suddho, I want to marry him, how Madhan takes my hands in his and kisses them both, first the left, then the right, then the left again. How he tells me we can still see each other, how he can visit me in America if Suddho is still to take me there. And when I ask him why we can’t run away together like we’d planned, how he looks away so I can’t see the tears clinging to his eyes. How he kisses me, deeply, and holds me to him.

We spend what feels like hours there, ignoring our tea, holding each other, barely separating, wanting this moment to never end. And when we finally separate, how he tells me he’ll call, he’ll see me. How I cry because I know this isn’t true. We both know it isn’t.

And how he takes me to the door, unwilling, and opens it to the bright sunlight shining in. How we kiss and we kiss and we kiss, and he moves me past the door, looks into my eyes and says nothing. How he closes the door. How I knock, and cry, and call his name over and over again. Madhan. Madhan. Madhan.

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Tallulah

At a little creek, beside the woods, a three minute walk from my old childhood Park Ridge home, there’s an awkward stone bridge that someone made, the idea being that you could hop from one stone to the next to get to the other side, where the woods would give you enough cover to get high out of sight and smell of parentals. I didn’t want to get high, but my tiny self did want to get across, if only so I could say I did. But every time, every damn time, I’d come up short about halfway across and fall into the creek, soaking my Converse. I’d have to turn back and head home in my soggy shoes, leaving wet footprints behind.

There was a gaggle of kids that would give me shit at recess, follow me home and shout taunts till I reached the house with the pitbull that was always in its yard, the pitbull that gave me slobbery kisses but growled at the kids anytime they got near. One day, I decided to pick up some rocks and whip them at the kids’ heads. That got them off my back, until a couple days later when they told me I was adopted. This was before I found out that I actually was adopted. But anyway, that’s what they said. Because you know. Escalation.

When I asked my parents about it, I got a bowl of mint chocolate chip and an episode of Pokémon. I don’t know why I didn’t ask them again. Why I didn’t press it. But I didn’t.

There’s a thing you do when you’ve just found out something that huge about yourself and are trying to get to sleep that first night, or at least there was a thing I did. I clenched my pillow with all ten fingers till my knuckles went red, then white, till my fingertips hurt and beyond even that. I smothered an invisible person and yelled into the pillow till I thought I might go hoarse. I punched the pillow, then the mattress, then the bed frame. I snuck into the kitchen, scooted a chair up to the fridge so I could reach the freezer, and iced my bloody knuckles. I didn’t want the parentals to notice.

I remember sneaking into our partially finished basement, dirt floor in the farthest corner, the place where the light didn’t quite reach, and plopping myself down, not caring if I got my pajamas dirty. Listening to the sound of the furnace dying out and coming back to life: a coughing, wheezing resurrection. I don’t know why, but I started digging. It wasn’t long before I found what I hadn’t been looking for: an empty Jim Beam bottle. Jim Beam, what Dad had been drinking before he “quit.” What he’d given up after Mom started needing surgeries and four hours of sleep in the middle of the day.

Anyway, I took the bottle and smashed it against the wall. I hadn’t planned any further than that, so I picked up all the shards and put them back in the grave I’d robbed them from. All except one. It was a big piece of glass, narrowing out to an impossibly sharp tip. What I did was I brought it to my feet, bare, dirt clinging to the bottoms of them, and I started jabbing little pricks into my ankles. I was careful not to go above where my socks would be able to hide what I’d done. I don’t know how long I sat there, alone, in the dark, on the dirt, and poked little constellations and swirling galaxies into my ankles. All I know is it kept me from crying, and that’s all I really needed in that moment.

I hate myself for it, but I never really said anything to those kids after that. Took all of their taunts, their laughter, their following me home everyday. I didn’t throw any stones, didn’t yell back. Just took it. All the while here I was, in my room, unrolling my sock and adding a little bit more to my painting every day. I’d work in sections, letting one part heal before circling back. I always had something to work on.

I guess it all came back to that creek for me. I’d go there day after day, hopping from one stone to the next, taking those leaps of faith, and inevitably I’d fall in about halfway through. The water would soak my shoes, and I’d get home to see that the individual pinpricked bloodstains on my socks had bled together and faded to a light pink. I let the creek launder my socks, hiding them from the rest of the laundry so that the parentals would never find out.

Until this one day.

This one day, I walked straight from the school bus to the creek. I went without hesitating, jumped from one stone to the next as if I was born to do this. Reached the halfway point, the creek rushing a little faster that day, the water lapping the stone’s edges, turning it a darker color. All around me, things were moving even though I wasn’t. Things were carrying on. So I jumped. And when I reached one stone, I jumped to the next. And the next and the next, until I made it to the other side. When I got there, I plopped myself down on the grass, on my back, and watched the clouds slice through the sky, watched the planes slice through the clouds. And it was like that for who-knows-how-long. But eventually, I left. Eventually, I went home.

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Terrible Fate

Check out my new short horror film Terrible Fate! When a man finds himself trapped in a world of night and nightmares, he must test his memory and limits to escape his terrible fate. Let me know what you think!

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Rodhi

Baba is on the couch. Mama says he’s resting, but I know what that means. His breath reeks, even across the room, and I tiptoe as if I might wake a sleeping giant. Mama tells me I’m not to drink when I grow up, that it’s against our religion. She tells me this as if she has to. The air is thick with the stink of paint, and I breathe in gasps before holding my breath again, a diver getting ready to enter the deep.

There’s a canvas sitting on the floor next to the couch, half-completed, the scene a sunset with a willow weeping its fronds over a little boy who’s looking out over a pond. You can almost see the swan at the farthest edge of the pond, but just barely. Only a dab of its gleaming white in the fading light. Even when he’s drunk, Baba can paint the most beautiful pictures. He always tells me he could’ve been a master. If he’d just gotten his chance, he could’ve been a master.

Mama hands me my shoes, the ones with velcro that light up every time you take a step. I have this thing where every time I put the shoes on and velcro the straps, I take a stomping jump to watch them light up, but I know not do that this time. This is our competition, between Mama and I, to see who can be the quietest. We’re like sneaky robbers making off with our own safety, Baba that errant brush that can ruin an entire canvas.

I lose this competition.

I trip over a toy I left out, one that Mama told me to pick up earlier, nearly fall but don’t quite, right foot coming down hard, stomping, loud enough to wake Baba, my only consolation being that the shoe finally lights up like how I wanted it to.

Baba asks what’s going on. As if he has to. As if he doesn’t know that Mama’s taking me away from all of this, taking me away from the paint stink and the beer stink and his drunken stupors. It was always only for a couple hours, just staying at Nani’s till it was safe to go back, but everything seemed different this time around. So I didn’t know. So Mama, I think, didn’t know.

Mama instinctively hugs her arm around my neck, motions me over to the door. Baba tells us to wait, but we don’t. He gets up, holds his arms out to regain balance, and staggers to the side. Knocks over his canvas with his ankle, then steps right through it. Sunset reds gather at his ankle where his foot pushed through, giving him the illusion of a serious injury, blues mingling with the reds as he pulls the foot back out, then steps onto the carpet, spreading the paint as he finally gets his feet underneath himself.

Baba does that yell he does sometimes, the one where spittle goes flying from his lips and he looks like a rabid dog. He yells at Mama with such rage that you can hardly make out the words. Says it’s all her fault, that she’s ruined it. Mama tells Baba he’s been drinking, and the way Baba looks at her after she says that, you’d think that this was news to him. He takes a step toward us, cracking one of the corners of the canvas in the process. He reaches down and grabs the canvas. Whips it at the wall, where it makes contact and sends paint flying to the left and right of the hit, as if this is the supernova of a painted star. That’s all Mama needs, apparently, because she takes me by the hand and opens the door, shuts it on Baba’s words right as he’s making his way over.

Mama doesn’t cry until she realizes she didn’t grab the car keys, and even then it’s that silent cry she does, the one where she looks away and doesn’t make a single sound. She takes me by the hand, and we make our way down to the pond in the center of Bay Colony, sit on the grass by the water’s edge and take a second to catch our breath, to figure out what to do next.

After five minutes or so, Mama looks at me. She opens her mouth to say something, the lightning bugs flashing behind her, but nothing comes out. But then, finally: “Bus.”

Des Plaines doesn’t have many bus routes, not like Chicago, so we have to walk about a mile down Potter to the nearest one. I ask Mama if we’re going to Nani’s, and she says that we aren’t. I ask her where we’re going, then, and she says nothing.

We finally make our way to the stop, and we sit on the bench next to each other. At least I sit, anyway. Mama gets up after a minute and paces back and forth. Five minutes pass, maybe ten, before Mama tells me to stand up. The bus isn’t coming, she says. The bus isn’t coming. Except it is, down the street a bit, LCD screen on top announcing the next stop. I tell Mama. Look, I say. Look. She does, then looks back at me.

“We have to go.”

I start to cry as we walk back home, but that doesn’t work, so I tell Mama that my feet hurt from all the walking. Without hesitating, she picks me up into her arms and cradles me. I actually drift in and out of sleep in her arms, sometimes looking up to see her calm face, eyes ahead, tears running their course down, leaving her chin and making contact with my face.

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Mario

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The seat belt burns my skin as I buckle myself in. Dad gives me a look in the rearview as he pulls out of our parking space. As he pulls away from the pond, where I can almost see Waldo sprawled out on the ground, head cracked open by my bat. It’s gonna take some time, Dad says. That’s all he’ll say to me. He’d threatened me with the Academy for years. Had friends, old military buddies, on the inside. Was just waiting for an excuse, and I gave it to him. A single backpack sits next to me, packed with the only things I’ll be allowed to bring with me. Everything else gets left behind.

Dad barely let me get any time with Macchiato before leaving, the dog cowering in the corner of my room after I slammed the door shut and packed my shit. I pulled him into my closet and cried onto him in the dark, Dad yelling shit behind my bedroom door, pounding on it, yelling at me to hurry up. Even in the dark, I could see that Macchiato’s ear was turned inside out. I fixed it for him and opened up the closet door.

And there’s something else.

Nights spent camping out in my closet, before we even got the dog, that’s how little I was, and the way Dad would stagger down the halls like a drunken ghost, sometimes crashing family pictures to the ground as he reached out to steady himself on a wall. And I’d push myself farther into the corner, and wait, and try not to breathe, and close my eyes, as if he wouldn’t be able to see if I couldn’t. There was a stuffed animal my mom gave me, a little swan, and I’d hold onto that in the dark, clutch it to my heart so tight that it was like the swan had come to life. And then the steps coming close to my door. Closer. Heavier. Right outside.

Doorknob turns. Door swings open. I let out all my air like a punctured tire. I’m clutching my swan so tight that my fingers hurt. The door slams behind him. Loud enough for Mom to hear, but she won’t do anything. What can she do? Dad opens drawers and shuffles through my things. A couple seconds later, I can hear him lifting up my mattress, slamming it back down.

I should be able to hear footsteps before he opens the closet door, but I don’t. He opens the door so forcefully that a shirt falls on my head. I hope that it’ll hide me from him, but I know it won’t. He grabs the shirt and pulls it, some of my hair in his hand as he does. I want to yell, but I don’t. I know better. I squeeze myself into the corner till I can hardly breathe, clutch my swan so tight that I’m sure my knuckles would be white if I could see them. And then Dad turns on the closet light, blinding my eyes.

He slaps me across the face, sending my cheek to the wall. Abrasion of drywall against face, then tears being squeezed out of my eyes. I chew on my cheeks so hard that it’s a wonder they don’t open up and give me a permanent smile. He’s towering over me now, not even his usual wife beater on, just hairy chest and sweat, dried puke that was stubborn even after a good scrub, then drinking after puking to make up for the lost buzz. He crouches down, into my closet, and gets so close that I can smell him. His beer breath makes my eyes water.

He grabs the swan from my hands, asks me what he told me about carrying around that faggot doll. I tell him I don’t know, but I do. He slaps me so hard that I can feel my head start to bruise after it makes contact with the wall. Tomorrow morning, he’ll ice it for an hour so the bruise won’t show. He’s done it before, and he’ll do it again. He reaches at his waistband and pulls out his trusty old knife. Flicks it open as if he’s done it a thousand times, ‘cause he has. Brings it to the swan’s neck and hacks at it while I cry and actually start to scream. Stuffing touches floor as the knife pulls through, jagged cloth hanging from the decapitated stuffed animal, the placid eyes staring at me, questioning why I did nothing.

Dad goes to put his knife away, but stops when he sees where I’m looking. There’s a jagged, mangled scar that goes nearly from Dad’s navel to his back. He asks if I want to know where he got the scar as if this is the first time he’s asking me. As if I don’t have one of my own, going from my navel to my side, half-completed. As if he hasn’t cut into me time and time again, held a lighter to my skin to stop the bleeding afterward. Held the knife at my throat and threatened to open it if I ever told a soul.

He pulls my shirt up. Touches blade to skin. I don’t fight or squirm. I don’t know why I don’t, I just don’t. Tears well up in Dad’s eyes, and he mouths words I can’t hear as he slowly slides the knife inside of me.

And that’s it. That’s where the memory goes black.

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Phil

Korean War Memorial in snow

Today is December 1, 1950. My birthday. I am now twenty-four years old. There’s been difficulty getting mail in what with the cold. Thirty below some nights, or so they say. Haven’t heard from Genevieve in weeks. No more, “Dearest Phil,” “My Love Phil,” “Sweetest Phil.” Nothing but the blinding cold here in this godforsaken place, this Chosin Reservoir. They call us The Chosin Few. Ha.

Most days are spent rotating between who stands in front of the tailpipe, our vehicles kept running most of the time just to keep them from breaking down. One day they gave us hot cereal over at regimental headquarters. The hot milk was frozen solid within thirty feet of walking away from HQ. I mostly just eat Tootsie Rolls now. They’re the only thing that’ll melt in your mouth, that won’t freeze solid.

The Chinese have been attacking for days now. Nights, rather. They wait till we’re sleeping, play recordings of babies crying, women screaming. Lie in wait till one of our men goes to investigate, gives up our position. They gun the poor bastard down, come for us. I’ve heard that the chinks get hopped up on morphine before they attack. Lets them take shot after shot before going down. Fucking animals. I got in a few firefights, tracers the only thing illuminating all that dark. No way of knowing if I got any confirmed kills, but I like to think I did. Hardest part about it was keeping your hands steady in the cold, heat sapped from your fingers in seconds.

I lie awake at night, my breath disappearing into the wind, icicles clotting my beard, my nose. In my breast pocket, frozen solid, is the letter where Genevieve first admitted she loved me. Whether it was out of fear she’d never see me again or something else, I’m not sure. But I know I need to see her again. Fucking terrified I won’t. They say the Chinese like to come in three waves. First one carries rifles. Second follows up with grenades. And the third. The third just scavenges from the dead. These chinks fight like it’s their homeland. You’d never know the difference.

I want to have children. Grandchildren. I don’t want to die alone in this frozen hell, eyes glazed over with ice. I want to see my mom. Even my drunk of a dad. All that petty bullshit between he and I doesn’t seem so important anymore. If I could just touch Genevieve’s hand. Last I heard from her, she’d been having more spells. No sleep for days. Screaming at her parents. No one knows what it is. They have her on pills, but they don’t seem to be working. If I could just be there with her, she’d be okay.

I don’t know how many more times I can survive these attacks. Seems I haven’t slept in days, each day melting into the next. Melting. If only all of this could melt. The cold’s worse than the Chinese, and it never stops coming. I take naps during the day whenever my superiors aren’t around. It seems like we’re all just waiting to die. They’ve surrounded us. We’re outnumbered. I don’t know if I’ll make it out of this, but I’ll sure as hell try.

It’s nearly dusk now, pepto pink Korean sky stretching out everywhere around us. There’s an eerie hush, the snow collecting all of the sounds and hiding them from us. I’m so hungry. Probably malnourished. But that’s okay. Just as long as I can operate my trigger finger.

I’m rested now. Ready. I don’t know how I know tonight will be it, but I just do. So I stand guard and watch as the sun disappears from the sky.

No recordings of babies crying, of women screaming. Nothing but less than silence, the lack of sound itself absorbed into the snow. I ready my M1 Garand. Exhale. Tap the letter in my breast pocket to make sure it’s still there.

And then their battle cries. And then their uniforms, tan against white, coming in from the shadows. Shots pocking snow all around me, sending drifts of it into the air. Crouching and taking aim. Firing. Watching a man fall to his knees, then his face. Features erased just as his life is. Drawing a bead on another. Dropping another. I will not go down today. Not today.

A man falls beside me, red already spilling onto white. I look at him, and within seconds his blood on the snow crusts over with ice. I go to him, and another shot tears off his jaw. He falls on his back, lifeless eyes stuck to pink sky that’s quickly fading to black.

I fire three shots. Create three dead bodies. The air is so cold I can almost taste blood. My legs shake so badly I think I might fall, but somehow I don’t. Somehow I take cover behind a vehicle just as bullets ricochet off of it. All around me there are men, good men, squirming and flailing in the snow. One among them pushes his boots against the ground to stand back up. I run to him. Pick him up, sling his arm over my shoulder. He calls to me: “Phil. Phil. Phil.” We make our way, the two of us, into the dark, to where I’ve heard there’s a medical truck.

We finally reach it. I stop to load the man in. He looks up at me: “Phil.” Goes limp in my arms.

I load him in. Turn to go. The corpsman tells me not so fast. I’m to get in too. I look down: a neat hole in my side, blood frozen, saving my life. I get in.

When I come to, the doc’s saying, “Phil. Phil. Phil.” At the foot of my bed’s a metal medical file. My initials and some numbers: “PGN–090190.” I look at the doc.

“Don’t call me Phil.

“Call me PGN.”

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