Salt, Stars

We agreed on Halloween cookies
and mint chocolate chip ice-cream

for dessert, but I ran back to the freezer
when your next text said you liked Neapolitan

too. We ate brown Japanese curry
from a cube and threw out a backyard blanket

beneath the salt-speck stars and you leaned over
to poke my face with a blade of grass

and closed your eyes to laugh
when I told you I once slept on a hard hospital floor,

how the doctor opened the door
on my foot. We were so close, I could feel our lives

folding together like curry in the pot
then into your spoon, its taste salty and so fat

with the future I forgot about the ice-cream
and cookies in your fridge, or the red wine

on the counter, or the ribbons of air floating
with your breath wrapped in mine. There was so much

I missed, too busy watching the glint
of stars pressed to our skin in this lifetime

of sky, and what were we but two little bits
of taste on its tongue.

Josiah Nelson

Josiah Nelson is an MFA in Writing student and sessional lecturer at the University of Saskatchewan. His work has appeared (or is forthcoming) in San Antonio Review, Arboreal Literary Magazine, spring magazine, Fractured Lit, and The Rumpus. He likes thrift stores, slow cinema, and cardigans. He lives in Saskatoon.

Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson

Blue Boy

Before I knew his name, I just thought of him as the Blue Boy. His skin, pale to the point of translucence, got its color from the spider’s web of veins criss-crossing his body. His eyes had the blue of a clear summer sky and seemed just as wide with his staring. His hair was a thick, wavy, black mound, so dark that an unmistakably blue tone reflected out of it no matter how the light caught it.

No one else called him the Blue Boy. They mostly called him “l’Anglais”—the Englishman. At first because his French had an anglophone accent, and later—after he clarified that he was Irish not English—because they realized how much it annoyed him. I never called him Blue Boy aloud. I don’t think I ever called him anything when we met in the South of France as children. We didn’t talk much. As two outsiders, we might have. But our teacher made an effort to keep us separated during classes, maybe hoping to encourage us to mingle with the French kids, and we avoided each other outside of class. Neither of us fit in, and instead of that bringing us together for comfort, it kept us apart. We feared association with the other’s oddities. At least I did.

I only remember clearly one conversation from those days. I didn’t like playing soccer, but I had to stay after school because no one was home, so it was soccer or the band and I preferred the fresh air to the stuffy, loud music hall. I avoided the ball scrupulously throughout any scrimmages, and then volunteered to help put away the equipment afterwards, dawdling until the other boys left the changing room. 

But this time he was still there. His shirt and shorts lay on the bench beside him. He had his back to me, and I stared at the field of bare skin, made bluer by the effect of the fluorescent lights. He must have heard something, because his head snapped around to look over his shoulder at me. Embarrassed at staring, I would have looked away, except he stared too. His wide eyes took me in, and his initial fear faded. Finally he spoke.

“The other boys hit me there so my host family won’t see.”

He spoke English, and it took me a moment to understand the words, never having heard an Irish brogue before. Even when I did, I was still confused until he indicated downwards. Just across his underpants from the back I’d been staring at, yellow and purple splotches covered his skin. He turned to face me, and I saw the bruises were all over his thighs. Some were the pale red of fresh hurts that would soon bruise too.

“Why don’t you show them to someone?”

“I don’t grass on other kids.”

“Why don’t you wait outside until they all leave, like me?”

“I don’t run from fights.”

I looked away, shamed by his bravery, and started to get changed. He must have felt his near-nakedness when he saw me lowering my own shorts. Gingerly, he pulled pants over his poor legs. With the extra care he took, we ended up fully dressed around the same time. He stared at me again, and I stood still, waiting, like I needed his permission to leave.

 “D’you miss Canada?” he asked suddenly. 

I nodded. 

“Will you get to go back there?”

“If Dad’s job moves again.”

“I hope it does. When I get back to Ireland I’m never coming back here.” 

I nodded. 

“Right. See you then,” he said, and left. I stayed to wash my face and hands to make sure no one saw us leaving together. 

At home that night, I asked Dad how to treat bruises. He showed me a little brown bottle with Chinese writing on it and explained that was what he and his friends from Judo used. He opened it, and I could smell from across the room the harsh, grassy smell of cloves, aniseed, or loam. It left a yellow stain where Dad touched it with his hand, like turmeric. He offered it to me. I imagined gently rubbing it over the Blue Boy’s battered thighs. I told Dad no. I knew I could never get the courage to offer the massage. The smell would have just made him stand out more anyway. Most of all, I didn’t like the image of the yellow nicotine-like stain on his legs, covering the pale blue. 

He finished the year and I never heard him complain about bullying. Then he disappeared back to Ireland. My family returned to Canada in time for me to start high school, where I actually managed to make a couple friends. When I went to university in Montreal, life got even better. It didn’t matter anymore that I liked books and didn’t care about sports. It still mattered that I wasn’t into music, but my social standing improved to the point that I got my first girlfriend, Audrey. She was pretty and kind. I liked having a girlfriend. Unfortunately, it meant I had to go out with her to clubs with loud music, or house parties with loud music. In a dimly-lit loft at one such party, I heard someone speaking English with an Irish accent.

I wouldn’t have recognized the voice, it had grown deep and powerful enough that—unlike me, Audrey, and nearly everyone else there—he didn’t have to shout to be heard. I might not have recognized him on sight either. He had grown big and broad-shouldered, though I was taller than him now. His arms were thick and muscular and covered in curly hair. He wore a well-kept beard, as black as the hair on his head. It carried that deep blue tinge, but so did most dark hair in the mood lighting.

He happened to look my way at that moment and, seeing his eyes, I knew him. I must have been staring. He gave me a bemused but friendly smile. I realized he hadn’t recognized me, but he excused himself from the conversation he was having with a circle of other guys and approached. “Where have I met you?” he asked directly. As soon as I said the name of the French town, recognition sparked on his face. 

“Well, fuck me, you’ve changed.” His wide eyes looked me up and down. 

I felt a shifting at my side, and quickly switched to French to introduce Audrey. 

“Enchanté,” he said. 

As he turned his wide eyes and charming smile to her, I felt a twinge of discomfort in my stomach. Then he reached a long arm back through the crowd of people and tapped one of the guys he’d been standing with on the shoulder. When he presented the guy, a boyish, blond-haired imp, to us as “mon chum”—his boyfriend—my guts twisted further.

We explained how we’d met, and marvelled about the odds of meeting up again. But, since we never spent time together as children, and neither of us liked anyone we’d met then, it didn’t take long for our talk to run dry. Then he said he wanted a smoke. His boyfriend turned up his nose at the mention of it, so I said I would keep him company. Audrey looked surprised, knowing I didn’t smoke, but I gave her a shrug meant to convey Just so we can catch up, and she smiled back.

We grabbed our coats from where we’d tossed them on a bed, and headed to the balcony, a little wrought iron Montreal job that looked like a fire escape without the escape. We stood quite close together once the doors were closed behind us. He offered me a cigarette, but I refused, saying I had quit. Really I had never started, but I knew enough people who had smoked as teenagers and quit now that I thought it sounded honest. He didn’t comment, just lit his own and exhaled the first breath with satisfaction. The street was dark. Snow glittered in the pool of the occasional street light. My hot breaths showed nearly as thickly as his smoky ones.

“Fuck,” he said, “and I thought Irish winters were cold and miserable.”

I smiled at him and watched as he raised the cigarette and closed his lips delicately around it. His beard was especially well-trimmed around the mouth, and his lips jutted freely. When they opened again, and smoke jetted out, he locked eyes with me, then proffered the cigarette, saying, “You sure?”

I took it. I tried not to hold it too tightly. I had it between the middle and index finger, like you were supposed to, but I suspect my stiff wrist gave away my quitting lie. I placed it in my mouth, him watching me now with his unblinking eyes. I took a shallow inhale. As my lips parted to blow the smoke out, his mouth opened slightly too, as if in sympathy. When he took the cigarette back, his hand was icy to the touch, and I said so. He agreed, and asked why mine was still so warm. I shrugged. We lingered, allowing some of my heat to flow into him, then I said, “Well let’s get you inside then.”

“Right,” he said, but made no move.

A noise came from indoors and I dropped his hand. More prospective smokers appeared in the windows. He looked at me with something like pity as he took one last drag, then we went back inside.

I invited him and his boyfriend over for dinner with Audrey and me, but he cancelled at the last minute. The next time I saw him he had his arm around a different guy. When I asked what happened to the blond one, he just grinned and said, “Didn’t work out.” He asked me how Audrey was, but seemed uninterested in the details. 

The following week he turned up at my apartment. It surprised me, until he reminded me I’d given him the address when he was supposed to come over for dinner. I asked him to sit down, and he took a spot on the couch. I went to the kitchen to get beers, talking cheerfully about nothing as I did, but when I came back, his face was somber.

I asked what was wrong and he explained he’d broken up with the new boyfriend. “It’s my fault,” he said. “I chased him off. I always do if I feel it’s getting serious.”

“Maybe you just haven’t found the right person.”

He shook his head. “Nah. It’s never about them. I’m just fucked up.” 

I set the beers down on the table and took a seat across from him. 

“It’s my father. Every time I think I might like a guy seriously I start hearing what Dad would call him. Us. Puffs, homos, faggots. Or if he was feeling generous, he’d say: Couple of fairies. It’s funny, faggot I could take. I have. But not fairy. I guess it’s the dismissiveness.”

“He sounds awful.”

“It’s not all his fault. Got raised that way. My ma wouldn’t be thrilled about me bringing home a man either, although she’d probably just go off quietly to pray for us. They’d never admit it, but honestly, they already know. I’ve never made much effort to hide it. But they pretend not to see me.” 

He looked up, his wide eyes shining, and I realized he’d started crying. “Can I have a hug?” he asked.

I moved forward to kneel awkwardly next to him and reached out. He embraced me and pulled me onto the couch beside him. I made a little noise of surprise, and, into my shoulder, he asked, “You okay?”

“Yeah. I just didn’t expect that. To be, you know, cuddling.”

“Is it okay?”

“Yeah,” I said, though I wasn’t sure it was. I thought guiltily of Audrey, but then scolded myself. He had a serious problem. My straight, square sensibility could handle a little discomfort to support him. He stayed in my arms for about an hour. Sometimes he would talk about his family or his church, sometimes he would just sit quietly. Then, abruptly, he got up and left.

I thought about telling Audrey, but reasoned that I wouldn’t have if it had been a straight friend, so this should be no different.

A couple weeks later he turned up again. He’d had another breakup, and a shitty conversation with his parents. We naturally moved to the couch. I felt somewhat outside myself as he cried quietly into my shoulder. Like I was still in the chair across from him, watching as someone else patted his back gently, and felt his beard scratch against their bare neck.

When it happened a third time, I decided to tell Audrey. I mentioned it nonchalantly, as a story, sad and kind of cute. She didn’t think it was either. She demanded to know whether he was hitting on me. When I pointed out that he kept dating other guys, she waved dismissively. “Mais pourquoi il est venu te voire chaque fois qu’il a pas de chum?” 

I answered that he came to see me not because he was single, but because the relationship had ended, badly. I shared my reasoning that if he were a straight man who’d been dumped by a woman she wouldn’t have thought twice about me comforting him. 

She scoffed at that. “Mais c’est normal pour eux.” 

I asked who she meant by “eux”—them.

She answered, “Les mecs gays.” Gay guys. “C’est normal pour eux de sortir avec plusieurs gens au même temps.” That is, it’s normal for them to see a few people at the same time.

I didn’t mention it to her the next time.

Other than when he came over, I didn’t see him much. Very occasionally we found ourselves at the same parties or bars. He was always with a group of men. In that darkly lit nightlife, his blueness was nearly invisible—everyone had interesting shades and tints reflecting off their skin and hair. But I saw the blue in the white LED light of my apartment, when he came over to cry on my couch and I held him. 

One Friday night near the end of term I found myself free from party or bar duty, while Audrey was out with her girlfriends. I had gotten out a book and settled on the couch, when a sudden tattoo beaten on my door made me jump. I opened it to see him standing there, eyes droopier than usual, but without tears.

“C’n’I c’m’n?” he slurred. “I want to talk to you.” 

I let him in, and he picked his way carefully to the couch. 

“I’m a little pissed,” he admitted.

“Do you need a coffee?” I asked.

“I’m not that drunk,” he said, frowning with his eyebrows.

I moved instinctively for the couch, then caught myself and sat in a chair. “Why did you want to talk?”

“I’m off soon,” he said. “After exams I’m going back to finish my degree in Dublin.” 

I nodded. 

“And before I go,” he said, “I wanted to… ah shit. Where’s your toilet?”

I directed him to the bathroom. I braced myself for the sound of vomiting but instead heard the deep splash of piss hitting water from height. I started making coffee. I heard the flush and the water running. Then he emerged, drying his hands on his pants. “You sure you don’t want a coffee?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “it’s alright. I’m not drunk enough for you to have to take care of me.” He went back to the couch. “You could come sit with me though.” I lowered myself slowly next to him. He leaned into me as he had many times, but without tears. Just a quiet sigh. “I’ll miss you,” he said.

“Me too.”

“Yeah?” His hand traced up and down the line of buttons on my shirt. “How much?” he asked huskily, his hand reaching lower.

“Stop that,” I said, pulling his hand away.

He didn’t resist, he just asked, “Why?”

“Because I have a girlfriend. And besides, I’m not…” I left the thought unfinished.

“Not what? Not enjoying yourself? Not comfortable with me?”

“It’s not that, but I’m not—” I was cut off by the door bursting open.

“T’es là !” Audrey said as she walked in. “Ton portable marchait pas. Les filles sont—” She stopped, seeing him next to me.

“Audrey!” I blurted out, getting to my feet. “C’est pas ce que tu penses.”

“You know, it kind of is what she thinks,” he mumbled, stretching.

“Rien s’est passé, on parle, c’est tout !” I assured her.

“That’s true, we were only talking. You were telling me how you’re not—” He paused with mock gravitas, and then suddenly rattled off, “a-gentleman-who-prefers-the-company-of-other-gentlemen.”

“Shut up!” I said.

“No, you shut up!” said Audrey in her heavily-accented English. “I know what this means! He is saying you’re gay. I understand!”

He laughed at her sincerity, and she turned back towards the door. 

“Wait, Audrey, stay!” 

She hesitated. 

“And you,” I said, rounding on him. “Get the fuck out of here.”

“Right. Okay,” he said, getting to his feet with maddening calmness. “But something real happened between us, and at some point you’ll have to confront it.”

“Nothing happened!” I shouted. “I just wanted to be a good friend. You’re the one coming over and asking for cuddles, and making me—”

“Making you?” he said sharply. “I didn’t make you do anything.” I pushed him to keep moving towards the door. He looked to Audrey. “He’s telling the truth,” he said. “Nothing happened. Physically, I mean. I can’t speak to what he might have felt—”

My fist swung and caught him square in the face. Audrey yelped. He stumbled back into the door. 

“Don’t you talk to her!” I panted.

He looked up, blood dribbling from his nose. “Right,” he said quietly.

I was angry, and I knew what to say. “Just get out, you fairy.”

I watched with satisfaction as his eyes widened and his jaw tensed. I half-expected him to take a swing at me next. I think I wanted him to. But he just spoke with quiet coldness. “I don’t ever want to see you again.” Then he was out the door. Before I could stitch together any kind of explanation, Audrey followed him, leaving me alone with the image of blood pooling in his blue-black beard, staining it purple.

But I did see him again. Approaching a small pedestrian bridge into the Grande Ile in Strasbourg, admiring architecture that reminded me of both medieval castles and quaint ski lodges, a flash of color caught my eye from across the canal. I turned to see a face that was strange to me. He didn’t have the beard anymore, and he carried more weight in his cheeks, but I recognized the blue of his skin. Surprisingly, he recognized me too, and even more surprisingly, he smiled and called to me.

We met on the bridge. Between us stood a closed baby carriage, but he pushed it to the side and pulled me into a hug. We had to get through, “What are you doing here?”—I was visiting on my way to a conference in Frankfurt; he was working as a translator for the Irish government— “How have you been?”—well, apparently—and “How long has it been?”—about 14 years—before I could ask him about the baby carriage.

“Hopefully she’s asleep.” He gently pulled back the cover and was greeted with a howl of displeasure. “Oh, you might as well meet her now,” he said. A chubby, wrinkled baby emerged. Her face, light brown to begin with, darkened and reddened as she cried. Her hair was as black as his, but fine and curly. “Mostly looks like her ma.” He rocked the carriage back and forth as he introduced us.

I flicked away a cigarette I’d forgotten was in my hand, before leaning in to look at her. “And her mother is…” I didn’t know how to finish the thought, but he helpfully stepped in.

“My wife.” He held up a hand with a wedding band as evidence.

“Then you’re not…” I trailed off again.

“Not what? Gay anymore?” he laughed. “It’s okay, you can say it. I didn’t go to some conversion camp or anything. It’s true I mostly prefer fellas, but there were always a few girls that did it for me. She’s one of them.” I nodded, wordlessly. “I won’t pretend it didn’t make things easier with my parents, the Church, or the government, but I never lied to anyone. Tell you who did give me shit for it though: my straight friends from Uni. Happy to tell me I’m lying to myself and my marriage is a sham.” He laughed this off, and I nodded sympathetically. He gave me a crafty grin. “You fancy meeting her? This one’s meant to go down soon. I’m just trying a walk to quiet her. D’you have dinner plans?”

I didn’t. In fact, I knew no one in the city. I tried to protest, but he was already on the phone telling his wife he’d bumped into an old friend and there’d be one more at dinner. As we walked, the crying quieted, and soon we could talk without shouting over her. “What about you then? You with anybody?”

“No. Still single,” I answered. “I’m out now,” I added.

“Oh you are?” he said. Then gave a little “Heh.” Coming from someone else it might have sounded nervous. But his clear gaze was unwavering, and his smile genuine. It was more like an unspoken ain’t that some shit.

We walked in silence a little farther, then I said, “I’m so sorry for what—”

He cut me off. “Don’t. It’s alright, we were both lost and messed up at the time. I don’t want to talk about it.”

When we arrived, I helped him navigate the carriage up three flights of stairs, then steadied it while he took out his keys. He fitted a solid, heavy key into the lock. The kind you never got in Canada, and which always gave me the same thrill as old editions of books or ruins of ancient architecture. 

A woman turned from setting a table for three and flashed a lively smile at us. She noted the silence from the stroller and greeted me with a bizarre combination of enthusiasm and hush. She pressed each of her cheeks against mine in turn and introduced herself in accented French as “Nicole.” 

“He speaks English.” His voice was muffled from reaching into the stroller. 

“Well thank God for that,” she said, switching to a dialect I wasn’t familiar with but would later learn came from Manchester. “Call me Nikki. I prefer that, I just don’t like how the French say it. Knee Key!” she squeaked, the emphasis squarely on the second syllable. 

The baby stirred slightly, as she was removed from the stroller, but gentle rocking, and a soft, blue cheek protecting her face from the light coaxed her into continued silence. Nikki invited me to sit and asked me about myself while he put her to bed. He emerged a moment later, to give her a kiss and me a drink. When I’d finished it, I suggested that I should be leaving, but Nikki insisted she’d already added the extra pasta and said that if I didn’t stay she knew where it would all end up. She prodded his slightly protruding stomach, and elicited a good-natured burp.

I tried once more to excuse myself early. I had trouble meeting their eyes. With my apology to him unfinished, and being unsure how much of the past Nikki knew, I felt restrained. But they weren’t having it, and the smell of her food and the twinkle of his eyes as he reminisced eventually seduced me.

They each moved so easily around the other in setting the table. He made it clear that nothing was out of bounds, so eventually I relaxed.

As it turned out we enjoyed ourselves a bit too much, because Nikki’s shriek of delighted laughter at one of the stories I told about Montreal set off a corresponding cry from next door. He rushed off, and after a few minutes of attempted soothing, ended up bringing the baby back out. She calmed a bit, in the big living space, but showed no indication of going back to sleep. I got to see a little sheepish smile now, and her open eyes. Despite their brown color, the wide-eyed stare was definitely her father’s. As he bounced her gently on his knee, I recognized a glint off her hair. True, it was just baby hair that might fall out, and its curls foreshadowed a texture more like Nikki’s, but it undeniably had a tinge of blue.

He offered to walk me to my hotel, insisting it was the best way to get her to sleep. So soon we were back out on the dark city streets, him pushing the stroller next to me. It had grown chilly since the sun went down, and when I noticed him shivering I insisted that I could find my own way. Instead of answering, he took one hand off the stroller, reached down, and took my hand. Then he gently guided it up, and across his thick shoulders until I had my arm around him.  We walked like that for a few blocks before he said, “I’m not making a pass or anything. It’s just…” he searched for words. “Some guys have this, you know? A family. Two guys I mean.”

“Yeah,” I agreed.

“I sometimes wonder how that would feel different. I could have had that. You still might.”

“I can’t even look after myself, much less a baby.” 

He didn’t laugh.

We walked in silence for a few blocks, when suddenly some noisy laughter surprised me. A few students spilled out of a doorway, headed to the bars. I instinctively started to retract my arm, but feeling his shoulders tighten, I left it. We walked past them. Probably seeming for all the world like a family. I don’t think any of them looked at us twice.

Then, we arrived at the street my hotel was on. I turned to him, my face very close to his. I could see individual veins under the skin of his face, rather than the general blueness I saw from a distance. His eyes flicked towards me, although he didn’t turn his head. “You know where you’re headed then?”



“Say thank you again to Nikki for a lovely meal.”

“Will do.”

“She’s great by the way. I totally get it now that I’ve seen you together.”

His mouth formed a smile, though his eyes didn’t follow as he nodded. “Right,” he said. “Bye then.”

As I left, I looked back as he fussed with the cover of the stroller and sighed, exhaling steamy phantoms in the cold night air.

Jack Morton

Born in New Brunswick, Jack Morton studied English and Writing at the University of Toronto. His stories can be read in Expanded Field Journal, NonBinary Review, Radon Journal, The First Line, Parsec Ink’s Triangulation, and Woodward Review. He currently lives in the South of France.

Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson

Gender Is a Performance, Darling

The aisle offers all manner of masculine trophy / each package a beast / mounted and glaring. Each package / a sphinx speaking riddles in a language / my parents refused to teach me and / surely I’m confusing onlookers with my confusion, / so I grab one like its contraband and pay / with a wad of singles and an apology, / like it’s a crime to self-actualize / and I’m compelled to confess / to the cashier: I’m buying these boxers for myself. And she says nothing / because the trans / action is obvious.

I lock the door, blind the windows / leaving only the mirror / and my reflection as witness. / Girly boy hips wrapped in / sapphire, reserved for royalty. / I peacock ’round the privacy of my room, half-feathered / and pale as the moon. Fresh / waistband kissing the hard-earned peach fuzz / below my navel and / blush at the gesture. I make / a stage of the floor tiles, spinning / theatricals under fluorescent light buzzing / like a crowd cheering encore! / Encore! / Nobody gave me permission / to perform, I did that all myself. I wrote the role / and cast myself to act; such is / the nature of becoming.

James Ambrose

James Ambrose is an agender poet and writer of all things weird, queer, and macabre. He is a professional college drop-out and can be found roaming the valleys of Virginia. This is his first publication, with more forthcoming. Find him on Twitter @caninebrainz.

Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson


He thought I’d look older with a drink in my hand. During the shows he leaned against the wall to my right, always watching the crowd. We passed a whole season this way. Small sips and secret glances. My father wasn’t the kind to notice I was gone.

When we met, I was too young to get into the shows by legal means, but I had a big smile and an impressive collection of band tees—a currency that ingratiated me to him early on. I found the shirts in thrift stores I wandered into by myself. Soft and loose and two sizes too big, but I liked the way they felt against my skin. We lived in a small town. Maybe some of them were his.

The night before his band left on their first summer tour, he wrote his email address on a napkin and slipped it into the pocket of my cutoffs after the show. I examined it at home, my legs dangling off the fire escape as humid night air thickened to a cocoon around me. The at sign swirled in blue ink, a whirlpool waiting. 

I sent him my favorite YouTube links: grainy acoustic performances recorded in the ’90s, shimmering periwinkle glimpses of stars clutching mics and guitars. Dark dreamy chords and a piano’s soft lilt, secrets set to song—there were girl-shaped gaps in his musical education I’d decided I should fill. He sent his own music back to me, steely vocals shaping rough poetry through winding chains of mp3 files. I typed my secrets in reply, condensing my history into tiny digital missives that I cast out into the ether, hoping they’d reach him. The screen beamed out a pale electric glow that made me feel less alone.

I unearthed a creased road-trip atlas from my father’s glove box so I could track the band’s cross-country progress with a pink gel pen; I wanted to see where my messages would reach him on any given night. I imagined him folded into the backseat of a battered tour van, fitting his chin into the palm of his hand to hide his smile. 

I knew what he wanted when he came back to see me in August. The band had a few days off between shows and he’d decided he couldn’t wait. I pictured the Greyhound drawing a line through the few states left between us, the miles disappearing as he moved. 

When he arrived, we went to chain restaurants and record stores, drank bitter gas station coffee and watched a horror movie in the theater’s last row. We sat on the same side of the booths but never touched; I wondered what the waiters thought we were to each other. On his last night we took our shirts off on my bed in my room—just to see what it’s like, he said. Later on I’d tell myself it was a natural progression. When he left, I stripped my glossy girl-band posters from the walls, stuffed them into the trash beside the twin mattress, and stared for a long time at the bare space that remained.

His band concluded their tour at the venue where he’d once worked; their audience chain-smoked and drank beer in the almost-dark. He introduced me to his bandmates, who exchanged glances over my head they thought I couldn’t see.

As the set began, I found myself at the edge of the stage—closer than I’d ever been—and for a moment I envisioned myself moving among them, holding my own mic and winking in and out of the hazy purple light.

When their single hit big, he started calling me from the road. Weekends, holidays, the middle of the night—they were all the same to him. I was an inbox for his emotions, a sounding board for his ideas. A bare slate. 

As the song climbed the charts, he confessed he felt a mounting pressure to recreate its success. He was afraid of fame but also desperately desired it, and this made him difficult to deal with. His voice crackled through the landline, a constant refrain. Tell me I’m going to be OK. I wound the overlong cord around different parts of my body: my wrist, my leg, my neck. Sometimes I cut off circulation without noticing, pulled back into focus only by a sudden sharpness. That pin-and-needle prick. 

I stayed home in case he called, the phone nestled beside me on the pillow, derivative romances flickering on the screen in my bedroom. The women talked about love like a sickness, an infection. Some nights the phone never rang.

These days he’s the quiet kind of famous. Always a glowing review from the right publication when there’s a new album to promote. The band plays extended tours that routinely sell out, scalpers hawking inflated prices that his fans will always pay. 

I can enter the venue without him now. I stand in the crowd, swaying among the other bodies, but still I feel separate. I spend the whole show imagining he’ll return. That he’s behind me somewhere. That he can see me clearly now.

Sometimes I pull on the shirts I wore when I was younger, soft band tees past their prime and full of holes. I live in the same apartment. I work at the venue where we met. I serve beer to young faces full of hope and I double-check their IDs. I’m going somewhere, their expectant eyes invariably say. They smile and wink. I run my fingers over the plastic; I hand the cards back over and over again. On nights like these I can still remember gazing up at the stage from my place in the audience, convinced I’d caught his look with my own. But the way the light shone into his eyes, he told me, it was hard to see anyone at all.

At each shift’s end I roll the windows down in my father’s truck, peering through the skylight at every stop sign. I pretend the stars are closer than they are.

Abigail Oswald

Abigail Oswald is a writer whose work predominantly examines themes of celebrity, crime, and girlhood. Her writing has appeared in Catapult, Wigleaf, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, DIAGRAM, Split Lip, and elsewhere, and her short fiction was selected for Best Microfiction 2021. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, lives in Connecticut, and can be found at the movie theater in at least one parallel universe at any given time. More online at

Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson


content warning: death

Wrapped in blankets that smell like soap and soft bread, my baby comes home with me. This bundle, this speck of a thing, looms so large and heavy in my arms. Right now, mountains of expectations—to do right by him—make my breath shallow, my throat dry. 

The nurse says I must breastfeed, but I can only squeeze a few drops of colostrum, and I’m told that’s good—that’s something. But it’s not enough, and I’m drying up. They tell me to drink more water. I drink gallons. Still, nothing—and the baby screams for food. So, I express what I can, a few drops, a teaspoon maybe, but the milk is running out. 

The nurse calls every day. She tells me to keep trying—that women who resort to other things just aren’t trying hard enough—not drinking enough water. 

From my window, I see dust rise up over the mountains, entering through the tiny cracks in my house. It feels like rain, settling on my countertops, lightly coating the bathtub. I gather it in my hands and mix it with the drops I can pump, but it’s still not enough. I resort to eating the dust, mixing it with water, but nothing suffices. Water’s not the problem. It’s not the answer, either.

Each day, the dust falls thicker. It covers the floors, the windowsills, the bedsheets. The baby and I need a jacket. Not because it’s cold, but because we need shelter from the particles that keep falling. They cover our skin and make us itch, the skin flaking like more dust, our flesh raw.

Driving into town for a jacket, I see a restaurant sign that says, “Eat Big Food.” I stop in to see if more food will help because water certainly doesn’t. My tiny baby shivers and coughs while people around me shake their heads and murmur, “Poor baby. Looks like your mother doesn’t feed you.” Grease drips from their burgers while dust mounds in heaps on the floor. The plates and napkin holders on the tables are caked in it. A woman in a booth near the window chugs a carafe of water and wheezes. Two others slump at the counter, gripping empty glasses.

The wind picks up when we go outside, and the dust swirls like entire deserts set loose. I search for the horizon, but the wind and sand—all the particles of everything around me—press so hard, so compactly against my body and the one I carry. They push us, and all of the people around us, together into one tall mound, until our lungs fill with dust and each particle becomes a new cell that closes our breath. The baby crumbles. A voice in the wind whips itself around, still asking, “Did you really try?” Its hollow sound echoes, reverberating through the bones in my now-empty arms.

Cecilia Kennedy

Cecilia Kennedy (she/her) is a writer who taught English and Spanish in Ohio for 20 years before moving to Washington state with her family. Since 2017, she has published stories in international literary magazines and anthologies. Her work has appeared in Maudlin House, Tiny Molecules, Rejection Letters, Kandisha Press, Ghost Orchid Press, and others. You can follow her on Twitter @ckennedyhola.

Header photography and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson

Still Life

We were leaving the park—
the weathered benches
and big-kid swings and wide
expanses of green-turned-yellow-
turned-brown—and the kids
were asleep in the back seat
and their little lashes fluttered
like fallen leaves resting
against sun-stained cheeks
and our song came on
all melancholy and quiet
and you smiled at me
as we linked fingers
over the console and
we headed toward
the highway signs pointing
home, and I thought:
let’s paint this 
bowl, our fruitful life.
Let’s hang it on the fridge.

Mia Herman

Mia Herman is a Jewish writer and editor living in New York. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Hofstra University and her work has appeared in over two dozen publications including Barren Magazine, Bellevue Literary Review, ELJ Editions, F(r)iction, Ghost City Press, [PANK], Stanchion, Third Coast, and Variant Lit. Awards for her writing include an Honorable Mention in the Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest, nomination for the Best of the Net, and finalist for the Frontier Poetry New Voices Fellowship. Follow her on Twitter @MiaMHerman.

Header photography and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson

Every Train a Lantern

ride the train alone / get on the Amtrak / take a coach seat / down the aisle from the skinny bearded guy with the smoked oysters and the tiny silver fork / sit next to the boy who shows you his party videos where he drinks too much Boone’s Farm / knowing any amount of Boone’s Farm is too much Boone’s Farm / talk to the girl in the tie-dye shirt in the observation car while you sip a BuzzBallz margarita / it’s her first time on Amtrak too / no one but strangers / be whoever you want / you are from a small town in Illinois / you are from the big city / you ghost-write country songs for a living / you are an accountant / America is an oil painting slicked and sliding by in a riot of color / you are born of the wild wind / you precious beating thing

Amanda Kooser

Amanda Kooser (she/they) is a writer, rocker, Aikido student, and journalist specializing in space and goofy rocks on Mars. They graduated from the University of New Mexico creative writing MFA program in 2022. Her work has appeared in Yellow Arrow Journal, Conceptions Southwest, The Twin Bill, and The Hallowzine. Amanda lives in Albuquerque where she listens for train whistles and plays a pink-sparkle guitar in indie rock band The Dawn Hotel.

Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson

Wild Man

Looking down upon the dangerous place where water meets rock. The image is in black and white, with a V cut through the center. Inside the V, it springs to life and color. The rocks to the right are vibrant; to the left, the water is a swirling mix of toxic aqua blue, green, and yellow.

We had been watching the distant hills for three days. 

The first day, the smoke started as a thin plume, a persistent pale trickle slipping up into the sky.

“They better get that under control.” On the porch, Dad squinted at the vista below. “Conditions like this. This is no good time for a fire.”

I was suddenly acutely aware of my surroundings: the blonde grasses, blanched and crisp underfoot, the prickle of sweat salting the nape of my neck. The sun baking the earth, parching the pine boughs. The breeze had been nothing but billows of heat, even in the night, when the air up in Gold Creek usually cooled to a chill. It hadn’t rained in weeks.

“Should we call 911?”

“Nah.” Dad sat back and tucked a slug of chaw into his cheek. “I’m sure someone’s already doing something about it. We’re not the only ones who see it.”

I watched the curl of smoke with a morbid curiosity, the way you might gape at an accident—tragic that it was happening to someone else, but close enough to the danger for a little thrill.

“Don’t worry about it, wild man,” Dad said. “It’s a ways off.” He called me that, wild man, even though I was twelve years old and perpetually timid, at least compared to him. Dad was the one who had to charge out into the night to scare the scavenging black bears away from the truck when I forgot a granola bar in the passenger seat. This was a brave skin I could not imagine myself wearing, the adult who stomped out into the darkness, swinging the shotgun around like a baseball bat, shouting at the bears to go on, git. There hadn’t always been so many bears in our little town, I learned. In recent years, they were intruding into the populated areas more often because food in the woods was scarce, while human snacks—I had looked at the ground guiltily—were in ample supply.

While the sun baked the ruddy backs of our necks, Dad went about his business and seemed to forget about the smoke in the distance. He unloaded boxes of motor oil from the back of the truck into the shed, pausing to unzip and piss against the papery trunk of an aspen that grew along the side of our mile-long driveway. I kept shooting nervous glances through the tops of the ponderosas. I had never been close enough to a real fire to see smoke snaking up into the skies, but Dad’s movements were bored, methodical. Maybe it was immature of me to worry. Later that afternoon, as the day slipped into evening, the plume of smoke was bigger, fat and puffy as a cloud. When I brought it to his attention, he paused and looked westward again.

“Hmm,” was all he said. The creases between his brows deepened. 

That night, the heat was unbearable. I yanked the windows of our cabin open, but there was no breeze, just a heavy dead swelter that sank to the bottom of the room. I tossed and turned, my lanky legs tangled in fabric, until finally I kicked the quilt and the sheets off into a heap on the floor. The moon was a luminous spotlight. The pine branches cast feathery shadows on the window glass. Everything outside was still, too still, uncomfortably still, the entire night world crouched and breathing like an animal ready to pounce. Sometime after midnight, I tugged the windows closed again. It might have actually been cooler inside, where the hot breath of the world wasn’t panting down my neck. I barely slept.

When yellow sunrise spilled through the windows and I woke, the air smelled smoky, a nostalgic smell that brought me back to campfires, cozy winter mornings. Dad’s face was somber. He refilled the coffeemaker and stared out the window, not speaking, only the sputter and crackle of the hot pad as the coffee trickled into the pot. When he stepped onto the porch with his mug, I followed, too close on his heels. I had the childish instinct to slip my hand into his paw, but I didn’t. Instead, I stood up straighter. I caught myself mirroring him: both of our thumbs thrust through our frayed belt loops. The worn planks were smooth and dusty under my bare feet. Pine needles collected in the gaps.

Dad surveyed the thick column of smoke as he sipped his coffee, sucking leftover droplets from his mustache. 

“It’s still there,” I said helpfully.

“Yep. I see that.”

“Looks like it’s getting bigger.”

He said nothing, his eyes fixed on the hills below us. Finally, he sighed, tapped something into his phone, and frowned at the screen. When he pressed play on a news clip, a woman’s voice spoke.

“—on scene, just west of Gold Creek, Colorado, where crews are struggling to contain a growing blaze of almost nine hundred acres.” Nine hundred acres! My heart jumped up into my throat. I had a hard time picturing that much land, but nine hundred of anything was a massive amount.

“Dad!” The smell of the smoke was thicker now. My mouth tasted of campfire.

“It’ll be fine, wild man. They’re on it. News says it’s twelve miles off.” 

“Are you sure?”

He put a meaty hand on my shoulder. “Think of the Dickinson’s ranch, you know, with the horses? All the way out there? They’re four miles past the edge of town. So the fire’s eight miles further still. That’s a lot of distance, far as a fire’s concerned. Fire doesn’t move that fast, okay?”

I could picture the ranch and the rutted dirt road to the Dickinson’s. A trickle of a creek glittered in the sun. With manes aflutter, horses romped in a celery-green meadow, the only clearing for miles. I had seen an aerial photograph in school once: we lived in a vast, dark river of trees, the granite foothills furred over and swallowed up by pines. From the sky, Gold Creek was barely visible. Four hundred citizens was all, an old mining-era town in Colorado’s high country, every last thing constructed of weathered gray wood, splintered planks, faded hope, rusted tin. Sometimes tourists pulled through in their shiny vehicles and snapped photos of the general store or the cafe or my schoolhouse, once even of the Russell’s weatherbeaten cabin while Mr. Russell stood right there in the yard hosing down the pansies. I had overheard tourists calling us a ghost town, but that wasn’t true: four hundred of us lived here. Four hundred souls, not ghosts, not yet.

The strange, cloying heat unnerved me. It was hard to think of anything else when the air smelled like danger: acrid, almost sweet. The ponderosas’ butterscotch-scented bark, roasting. The smell drifted to the top of my consciousness, choking out any other thought. Nervously, I did my chores: I split some wood and left the ax plunged into the chopping block in the driveway, even though Dad griped at me to move it aside. I heaved the compost bucket out to the pile. Finally, heat-dizzy and drenched in sweat, I slouched in front of the TV, where I was able to forget for a bit. I don’t know how much time passed. Hours, likely, while Dad tinkered in the shed. Eventually, I got hungry and made my way, bleary-eyed, into the kitchen. 

The first thing I noticed was the uncanny light. Too murky for the middle of the afternoon, an uncomfortable yellowish hue like the air was steeped in tea. My vision was still scaling down from the TV’s brightness, and I rubbed my eyes and stepped out onto the porch to be sure. My stomach plummeted. It was wrong, the whole world tense. The sky was a bitter sulfur-yellow. Flakes drifted down, dusting the driveway’s gravel, landing in my hair, mottling the bushes. Snow? I thought stupidly, although of course it wasn’t, not in this heat. I ran a fingertip across the truck’s windshield. Ash.

In the shed, Dad was flat on his back, his head and shoulders buried under the chassis of his vintage MG—his project car. A wrench tick-tick-ticked a bolt into place. Jimmy Buffet crooned from a battered radio on the tool bench. 

“I think it’s getting closer.” I thumped on the MG’s metal skeleton. 

Dad slid out from under the chassis. “What’s that, wild man?” He wiped his greasy, blackened palms on a rag.

“I said the fire’s getting close. There’s ash everywhere. The sky is all yellow. What do we do?”

He stuffed the grease rag into his back pocket and leaned his head through the door, then frowned at the sky and took a few more steps out into the driveway, squinting, craning his neck. Inside the shed, it smelled like fresh sawdust and motor oil, but my T-shirt reeked of smoke, a crackling and sharp scent. My nostalgia for that smell was displaced by a clench of urgency. I twisted the radio dial until I found the news channel.

“—Explosive growth of what’s being called the High Lonesome Fire, which has rapidly blown up to over eight thousand acres in just a short time. The cause of the blaze is reported to be an unattended campfire, despite county-wide fire restrictions. Immediate evacuations are in place for the following areas: High Ridge, Walkerson Pass, Gold Creek, West Park—”

I dashed out into the driveway, breathless. “I just heard on the radio! They told us to evacuate!”

Dad was peering up at the strange sky. “No need to panic.”

“I heard them say it!” I insisted. “They said evacuate! They said Gold Creek!”

“There’ve been fires up here before. Fire’s natural, alright?”

“But it’s not natural! It was a campfire. They already know.”

“Campfire? It’s ninety-four goddamn degrees out. In the shade.” Dad shook his head, stuffing a nugget of chaw into his lower lip. He pinched the tips off a nearby pine branch, which should have bent and flexed, but instead just snapped clean off, a brittle break. “Who needs a campfire now, of all times? Christ.”

“I know! It’s nuts! It’s way too hot for a campfire!” Finally, he agreed with me on something. My voice sounded manic in my own ears. “They said it’s eight thousand acres already.”

“Eight thousand? That can’t be right. Fires don’t grow that fast. That’s almost, what—ten times larger, in less than a day. You must have heard wrong.”

“They said explosive growth. They said it blew up.” It was true—I was quoting the radio verbatim—but I was beginning to feel silly for my repetition. If there was any time to panic, surely it was now. A gust of wind pushed through the pines, a hot smoky breath, and the neighbor’s wind chimes plinged. Flakes of ash caught in my eyelashes. My cheeks were probably scarlet with heat—I could feel them flushed—and I plucked at my sweaty T-shirt. My throat burned as I swallowed. My mouth tasted urgently of smoke.

“This is our home,” Dad said firmly. “We stay put.” When he looked out at the forest, I knew what he saw: the little twig cross I had tied together for our arthritic pit bull, Mick, when I was five. The rose bushes along the driveway that Mom planted before she decided she had enough of this life. Behind us, the cabin that my dad’s grandfather, my great-grandfather, built with his own two hands, during an era that glittered with promise, when men flooded the high country to sift flashes of hope from the gold-heavy creek. It was the only home I had ever known. And all of it—the forest, the cabin, even the crackled creek bed—was dry as kindling.

Ahead of us now, the heavens were darkening. I could see the unholy shape of the sun, a red hazy blot. I knew I shouldn’t stare directly at it, but I did anyway, and my eyes didn’t burn right out of my skull, like I had been cautioned. The sun’s light was too feeble through the smoke. Above us was an apocalyptic sky from a movie, not a sky I recognized. It was no longer a forest I recognized, either. This menacing new forest crackled with its own hot breath. 

Some of the ash flaking down had letters printed on it. Roasted pages of a book, I realized, when I pinched a scrap between my fingers. That meant someone’s house was burning, this very instant. I was coughing now, tears welling in my smoke-burned eyes. I left Dad out there, staring up at the sky in silence, ash collecting in his arm hair as he did nothing, nothing. I grabbed the radio from the shed, ran back out, cranked the volume up.

“Did you hear that?” My voice cracked. “They said there are flames south of County Road 42! That means the Dickinson’s ranch is gone already! We have to do something!”

“Good God,” Dad muttered. “It’s not supposed to happen that fast.” He was frozen in place, gaping at the sky.  In the driveway, I left the radio blaring on the hood of the Chevy. I ran inside the cabin and grabbed what I could: our photo albums from the bookshelf. The file folder Dad tucked important papers into, even though I wasn’t sure what exactly it contained. An armload of food swiped from a shelf into a canvas bag. The dented coffee can on top of the fridge where he stashed crumpled wads of cash and spare change. Scanning my bedroom, gulping: my pocket knife, the photo of Mom with the bent edge. It was very dim now, a surreal timeless dark. My throat burned. On my way out, I flicked the porch lights on, but the weak light did little to cut through the haze. Wind whipped through the trees. The forest was full of shooting stars: the ash had turned to embers streaming through the sky.

 I tossed our things into the back of the Chevy. Had the sense to yank a tarp over the bed to protect our stuff from embers.

“Dad!” I shouted, even though he was only a few paces away. “I packed up. We have to leave!”

Now I could make out an amber glow through the pines that twisted my gut with an animal panic. I knew, without a doubt, that this was the end of something. The end of everything.

“Come on! Please! We have to go!” My eyes were streaming: smoke, fear. Grit and ash stuck to the wet tracks on my cheeks. I started towards him to grab his hand, but just then, an ember lanced through the air like a comet and seared into his shirt. On his shoulder, a hot firefly glow, a sizzle, a blooming ring of charred black fabric. Finally, he startled to life. He yelped and swatted the cinders from his skin. He looked at me with a terror-stricken face I will never forget.

“Let’s go, let’s go!” he roared. I was flooded with relief, but only for a moment. In his panic, he dashed towards me. But I’d left the chopping block in the way, with the ax sunk deep in the stump. It happened in slow-motion: Dad catching the ax handle with his shin, tumbling over himself, crumpling to the dirt. 

I ran to his side. He grimaced, clutching his leg.

“Dad! Are you okay?”

“My leg’s hurt. I think it’s bad. I don’t know if I can—” He tried to stand and collapsed. “It might be broken. Goddammit!”

I tried not to look at the ominous glow pulsing through the trees. The heat rose around us in waves. “We have to go.” I pulled him up. “Now!”

“I know, dammit! Just help me get into the truck!” When he leaned on me, he was heavier than I was prepared for, but we managed to shuffle over to the Chevy. He hoisted himself up into the passenger seat, wincing.

“You’re going to have to get us outta here, wild man. You get to learn how to drive, right now.” He flashed a grin at me, an attempt at playfulness, but his eyes were gleaming, saucer-wide. That split second, when we stared at each other across the bench seat, I knew I wasn’t a kid anymore. I clutched the steering wheel like I was holding Dad’s very life in my grip. I didn’t want that responsibility, but there it was. Dad had left some old sweatshirts on the floor behind the passenger seat, and now I stuffed them under my butt so I could see over the steering wheel. 

The salmon glow through the trees had begun to flicker and throb. We were out of time. Still, I was determined to pilot us as far as I could. When I yanked the shifter into reverse, the radio toppled from the Chevy’s hood. I backed right into the chopping stump, and I felt the bumper crumple.

“Forget it,” Dad said. “Keep going. Just go.” He leaned over and flicked on the windshield wipers to clear the scrim of ash. The sky ahead of us was sinister. We tore down the driveway, the shape of the familiar ruts cupping the tires. The truck bucked and swayed in my unskilled hands. Scraggly juniper arms clawed the side of the truck, squealing down our metal flank. I turned the headlights on to pierce the smoke.

“Go faster. You need to go faster.”

I rammed the gas pedal down. Thankfully the truck was an automatic. Just before I reached the mouth of the driveway, I was met with flame. Fire leapt through the scrub oak to my right, scrabbled up the tree trunks. Embers and ash flew towards us like charred butterflies. 

“Keep going. Keep going!”

“I know! I am!” I stomped the gas pedal down with the tip of my toe, jarring us over the spot fires blazing in the road. Sparks streamed down upon us. Now the woods on all sides of us were ablaze. The forest floor was singed black, glittering with terrible cinders. Flames lapped greedily through the canopy above. I saw the trunk of a pine tree that crackled and glowed like hell. 

At the main gravel road I turned left, instead of right toward Gold Creek. The fire had come from that direction. If it was already here at the mouth of our driveway, then nobody needed to tell me our town was gone. The sky was darker now. Flames raced through the undergrowth. I managed to keep the truck on the road, but I jostled us around wildly. Dad grimaced and clutched his leg with every jolt.

Then finally, ahead of us, the thing I feared most: a wall of leaping flame, two stories tall. The road consumed. The smoke billowing and churning. Tongues of flame that writhed and whipped and spun. 

“What do I do?”

“We’re all out of options.” Dad’s voice was desperate. “Just keep going. It’s up to you.”

I swallowed hard. I stomped the gas pedal down. I tried not to squeeze my eyes closed as the Chevy leapt through a tunnel of flame. I wanted to shut it all out—the heat welling up inside the truck, the smell of burning rubber that choked my throat, the terrifying whoosh and crackle outside—but I knew I had to keep my eyes on the road. So as I drove us into the heart of the inferno, I saw it all: the searing flames, the cavern of heat. In the passenger seat, Dad’s eyes were tightly closed. His mouth moved as he mumbled, or prayed. It was unfair, I thought, in a flash of anger. He should have to face this, too.

And then we punched through. On the other side, spot fires crackled in the underbrush, but we were finally ahead of the wall of flame. Veils of smoke drifted apart and dissolved into haze. Ahead, the sky darkened to indigo, the color itself a visceral relief, like deep water. The temperature inside the cab cooled in moments, but I could still only smell smoke. I tried to swallow, but my throat was baked dry. My mouth bloomed with iron, where I had bit my lip.

“Sweet Jesus Christ.” Dad cracked his eyes open. Past the fiery underworld, it was dusk, the final remnants of day sinking into darkness, the moon’s beacon rising. We said nothing. We just sat there as I drove on, trembling, shell-shocked, nerves flayed and buzzing but numb with relief, everything marinated in the stench of smoke and burnt rubber. I would smell it on my hair for days, no matter how much cheap shampoo I scrubbed with at the evacuation center. The phantom smell of smoke would wake me every night for weeks. 

Even once we were well past the fire, I kept driving, resolute. I did not look back over my shoulder, but every so often a flash of terrible saffron gleamed at me from the rearview mirror. I tried not to think about the quilt Mom had made me, still crumpled on the floor near my unmade bed. The silky manes of the Dickinson’s horses tossing in the sunlight, when I had still been a child. The forest where I had run barefoot and wild, learned to shoot arrows, carved my initials into an aspen near the driveway with the tip of my pocket knife. 

We rumbled through the forest, down the granite cliffs of Deer Canyon, up and over the next hill where the road curved again through a clearing. When I had put some distance between us and the fire front, Dad thumped the dash with his palm. “Pull over for a second. Tarp’s loose in the back.” Sure enough, in my side mirror, the soft flapping of a nylon wing.

I steered the Chevy to a halt.

“Put it in park,” Dad reminded me, although I had already clunked the shifter into P. He kneaded his leg as I hopped down from the driver’s seat. The cool night air hit me in a rush, fresh as running water. I breathed deeply.

I had a view of the foothills behind us. The sky was a deep cobalt, darkening, the mountains a black silhouette. Stars glimmered above like shattered glass. Peach smoke churned above the ridge. The fire had consumed my childhood, just like it had consumed the Douglas firs and the squirrels, the speckled fawns and the bluebells, every other gentle thing I couldn’t let myself dwell on. I could still see throbbing flames, which from a distance, looked like a handful of strewn embers on the hills. The coal-dark heavens glittered above, the scorched earth glittered below.

I re-tied the tarp, this time with a proper bowline instead of a hasty square knot. Back in the truck, Dad looked drowsy enough to fall asleep, and when he leaned his head against the window and fluttered his eyelids shut, I let him. It was miles of dirt road, still, winding and rugged terrain, until we would reach the city. But I could get us there. I knew the way.

Molly Seeling

Molly Seeling is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker based in rural Colorado. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Landing Zone Magazine, Spry Literary Journal, and Unfortunately, Literary Magazine.

Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson


Looking down upon the dangerous place where water meets rock. The image is in black and white, with a V cut through the center. Inside the V, it springs to life and color. The rocks to the right are vibrant; to the left, the water is a swirling mix of toxic aqua blue, green, and yellow.

The day my shoes spoke to me was the day that I put aside my winter coat and brushed the lint from my eyes. My shoes were tired of being trodden on, a sentiment I could relate to. They demanded early retirement and presented their resignation in a formal letter attached to one heel with a wad of chewed-up gum. I had no choice but to acquiesce. I set them free, free to join the other shoes at the bottom of my linen closet where they all chain smoke and complain that their leather is cracking. My leather is cracking too, so I oil my skin with primrose and lavender, ponder my own early retirement, unlike my father, rotted away before his time.

Ly Faulk

Ly Faulk has loved reading and writing for as long as they could read and write. They still believe in the power of the written word to save lives.

Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson