I will be a person who composts

who buys brown-spotted eggs direct from the chickens. 
Who never scoops out the blood spots 
     or tosses shells in the trash.
I will wash and sort my recycling.
I will bundle cardboard with rough string and gift-tie it
      in neat bows.
I will cook fresh soups from scratch. 
I will wrap my leftovers in beeswax cloth softened 
      against my heart.
I’ll become a person who sweeps and mops the front porch 
      and waves hello to the neighbours.
Who appreciates the relationship of bees to apiarist.
I will return strange mail to the sender.
I will switch from outdoor shoes to slippers.
I will become a person who can knit baby socks on 
      tiny needles.
Who can tame a songbird on an outstretched hand. 
I will eat crystals.
I will work miracles.
I will wake up with the sun to be mindful.
I will be a person who speaks only in song.
Who sends handwritten notes to mark minor occasions.
Who bakes crispy pies and writes in fountain pen.
I will scrawl to-do lists onto my palms.
Collect dryer lint in apron pockets.
I will be the kind of person who changes the sheets daily
      and hangs them to flutter in the cinema of the yard.
I will dream with brightness up and saturation down.
The one who consumes her receipts. 
Weeds the sidewalk.
Boils the roots for tea.

Kate Hargreaves

Kate Hargreaves is the author of 4 books of poetry and fiction, including the poetry collections Leak (Book*hug, 2014) and tend (Book*hug, Fall 2022). She lives and works in Windsor, Ontario where she also plays roller derby and talks too much about her cats. Find her work at CorusKate.com.

Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson


The side of a building with many fire escapes. The photo appears in black and white with a V-shaped center section in bright, comic-book style color, the building vibrant orange-red.

At 5:00 a.m. Mark’s pager squeals. It’s a fire call. 

In the kindest voice I can muster, I ask, “Can’t you skip it? It’s our wedding day.” I mash my face into the pillow. The real Catharine wants to break his face for leaving that damn radio on to disrupt my sleep. Pregnant, exhausted, awake most of the night because of his snoring, and planning to marry later that day—all are good reasons to let me sleep in just this once, to let another volunteer take the call, to allow the fires to burn. He says he won’t be long. 

I can’t go back to sleep, so I get up, eat a Pop-Tart, take a shower, and wait. An hour or two pass. Bored, or maybe suspicious of all these “fire calls” that have occurred almost daily since I moved in, I search his emails—he left the computer unlocked this time—dig through the files and folders in the steel filing cabinet in his office, flip through his baby book and other photo albums on the shelves, and rummage through boxes in the basement. This is my first time alone in his house when I’m not busy unpacking my own boxes, or getting ready for work or a class, or reading What to Expect When You’re Expecting, or trying to get back to sleep in the middle of the night after his pager crows and he rushes off. I push through the papers, albums, and files. I ignore the sting of the sunburn on my shoulders and chest and the urgent calls to pee every hour. Unsure of what I’m hunting, I keep digging until I have to leave to get my hair done. He’s been gone seven hours. We’re to be married at 4:00 p.m. Will he make it? Is he actually out fighting a fire? Why hasn’t he called? I get into the dress, the shoes, and drive.

I sit in an off-white wedding dress, size 12, while a woman curls my hair. The salon is loud with hair dryers, chatter, and the roar of my blood. My palms sweat. My back and neck ache. I close my eyes as she twirls my hair around the steaming iron. I don’t want to look at the woman in the mirror—fat, burned, and abandoned. 

As soon as I get in the car, my phone rings. Mark says he and his crew just finished fighting a large grass fire on the outskirts of town—two other volunteer fire departments were called in as well. Now he’s coming home. It’s 2:15 p.m. I say I’ll meet him at the house. 

I sit in the salon lot, my car running. All those emails to and from former girlfriends—Anne, Sharon, Susan, Linda, Janet, Stacey, Heather. They flip through my head. All those photos on his computer—vacations to Colorado, Las Vegas, Scotland, Arizona, Florida—organized in labeled folders with all those ladies’ names. All those faded Polaroid photos of a naked brunette in a bathtub in a box labeled “1985.” All those tax documents with his ex-wives’ names. All those receipts for rings, earrings, computers, limos, dinners, storage units, and trips. All those documents for apartment rentals, car leases, and purchases. All those credit card statements with balances in the thousands. He never mentioned debt. In his pen holder shaped like a fire hydrant, I found the key to a locked filing cabinet drawer. It held bankruptcy papers from 1997. He never mentioned bankruptcy.  

My dad calls to say he and my stepmom are in town and they’ve checked into the hotel. They’ll see me at the ceremony. I keep my voice cheerful. “Yes, see you there!” His call is the toll of a bell—time’s up—I put the car in drive and head to Mark’s. Because of my sunburn, Mark probably will not be able to tell I was crying. My face, neck, and chest burned, my skin peeling and pink. When I enter his door, he doesn’t say anything except how pretty my hair is as he buttons his white shirt. He has his shoes on. He’s ready. First stop: the flower shop to get my bouquet, and then the ceremony. 

My mother, with her large black sunglasses and cane, and her boyfriend David, wearing a terrible bright yellow shirt like always, are already at the Gerald Ford Rose Garden. They show up early to everything. Mark’s mother arrives in a bright white pantsuit. I wonder what her angle is. My dad and his wife Becky come up. My dad points at his Winnie the Pooh tie and says, “I know how much you like Winnie the Pooh.” I don’t correct him. If I ever did like that character, it’s been many years ago, so many I don’t recall watching that show like I remember Saturday mornings watching the Smurfs or She-Ra or Sunday nights spent with The Simpsons. I’m not angered by this—how could he know what I like or don’t like? He doesn’t really know me.

My friend Melissa, my maid of honor and only attendant, wears a lovely, flowing black dress. She was the maid of honor for my first wedding as well. This whole scene is a repeat. But this time—instead of the traditional tacky purple bridesmaid dress, rehearsal dinner, bachelorette party, church ceremony, and all the trappings she endured less than two years before—we are in a garden, and I said just wear a black dress, and please read this Pablo Neruda poem before the vows. I wanted everyone to wear black, but few did. I’m grateful Melissa is here. She applies my concealer, foundation, blush, and lipstick in the nearby restroom. Unfortunately, because of my sunburn from the week before, my skin is flaky, and she can’t do much to make me look better.  I’m glad she’s willing to participate in this event, though I am not sure whether it is a farce or real. The other bridesmaids I had in 2002 are not there—Gina cut ties because I told her I wasn’t going to raise my unborn child Catholic. At least that’s what she claims. But I know the truth: She watched me cheat on my first husband for over a year and lost all respect for me. Who could blame her?  Erin’s stationed out of state and couldn’t take leave on such short notice. Samantha, who had been pregnant at my first wedding with her second child, has her hands full with those two babies. I told her not to worry about coming. She had attended the first wedding. There may be more in the future, I joked with her on the phone. I had been out of Mark’s earshot. This time, instead of two hundred people witnessing my vows, we have maybe 40 guests. I’m surprised that Mark has only a handful of friends to invite. None of the other volunteers from the fire department are invited, which I find strange. 

This is his third wedding and my second, so we don’t register for gifts, and we don’t bother to invite distant cousins and aunts and uncles. I assume people who are no-shows don’t come because this is just a rerun. My extended family from Minnesota, Chicago, and Washington all attended my first wedding—I couldn’t bear to face them again so soon and did not invite them. It was bad enough this was my dad’s first time meeting Mark. They shook hands. I wonder what my dad thinks of him, of me. 

This time instead of a black limo, we ride in Mark’s Dodge. This time instead of not seeing my future husband before the ceremony, we shared a bed the night before and drove together to the site. This time instead of a priest who has known me since third grade, we have a judge.  He is a short man, maybe 5 foot—cartoon-like with a handlebar mustache and waiting there by the rose bushes in an awkward stance. We emailed our script to him the week before. Having never met him in person prior to the ceremony, we have no idea how well his delivery will go. 

This time instead of music, we have silence as people stand around and wait. Holding the bouquet, I face this small group. My mom’s boyfriend is taking photos. The photographer is off to the side snapping away as well. I asked that we skip the family group shots. 

I am two women. Part of me wants to keep this baby, have this wedding, quit my job, stay at home, and raise our son well.  I’d be better than my mother who only ever gifted me terror. She once screamed, “Pack your shit and get the fuck out!” and tossed my little red “Going to Grandma’s” suitcase at my head. I was seven. I’d be better than my father who took off (who could blame him?) and left me with the beast that still stalks my nightmares.

I’d give my son everything I had wanted: two parents, a house—not that trailer—nice clothes, family time, game time that didn’t end with a mother throwing the board or the cards in the trash, a place to land after a hard day at school, the embrace of a mother who listens to his stories when he’s young and keeps tabs on him when he’s a teenager. I won’t allow my son to run the streets with no curfew and no supervision. I won’t supply the wine coolers in our fridge, stay home if you’re going to drink. I won’t be the mother who’s at her boyfriend’s place every night of the week. Instead, I’ll be home playing the role of mother. Although I’ve never acted on a stage, never memorized lines, I would figure it out. 

The other part of me wants to run from this rushed wedding and give the baby away. The open road, the open notebook, the open door all call, and I want to go. This could be my fire call. I must act now. The pager can’t be stopped—it’s screaming and screaming—I must leave. I could jump in his car, flip the lights and siren on, and take off. This baby would do better with a mother not as bruised, not as cursed, not as abused. How can I offer anything good when all that was poured into me was poison? I’m a deep well. First, tainted by my mother. Then, as a 16-year-old rebel, I’d sought out others who offered me cans, bottles, and glasses filled with something, and I drank and drank and drank—hoping to finally feel my thirst quenched. I drank until I blacked out, and I stayed that way until I woke at this rose garden, pregnant and confused. It isn’t the kiss of a prince that awakens me; it’s the pinch of the dress on my growing belly, the clatter of the cameras’ shutters, the sprinklers suddenly dousing the rose bushes. The bouquet falls from my shaking hands. Mark hands it back to me. 

“You ready?”

It’s amazing what the years take away. I’m sure I looked into his eyes. I’m sure I said something when the judge asked for a response, but I can’t recall. All I have left are the photos and the script the judge read, which was from The Simpsons episode “A Milhouse Divided.” In it, after Milhouse’s parents announce they’re divorcing, Marge and Homer are worried about their own marriage. Homer feels bad that he couldn’t give Marge a nice wedding all those years ago because they were young and strapped. The episode struck a chord with us since we were marrying because of a surprise pregnancy too.

The judge read, “Do you, Catharine, take Mark, in richness and in poorness—poorness is underlined—in impotence and in potence, in quiet solitude or blasting across the alkali flats in a jet-powered, monkey-navigated … and it goes on like this.” 

There was a note that the judge should shuffle his notecards before he said, “it goes on like this,” but I remember he didn’t do that. My only memory of the actual ceremony is my disappointment in the judge. He didn’t perform the piece like we had imagined.  

Now I read those words and realize we’d selected them because they were ridiculous. We weren’t being serious. We were two people who happened to like the same cartoon show. Two people who liked to drink. Two people who liked sex. That’s why we were gathered there—and we couldn’t compose real vows because there was nothing connecting us but an unborn baby who neither of us had known or wanted just a few months before. 

The judge announced us married and everyone clapped.

The day after the wedding, I ask about the bankruptcy. No point in hiding that I snooped—I left the emails up, the filing cabinet drawers open, and paperwork sprawled across floor. He knew I knew as soon as he returned home from the fire call, but he didn’t bring it up when I got back from the salon. He met me at the door, finished buttoning up his shirt, grabbed his tux jacket, and we drove off to get married.   

He tells me he married his second wife Amy in 1996. She was only 21 years old and he was 28. After knowing each other only a few weeks, they hopped a plane to Vegas, got married, then returned to Omaha to his shabby one-bedroom apartment. She started racking up debt almost immediately. He says Amy came from money. Her father was a rich lawyer, and she wouldn’t work, but expected a new place to live, fashionable clothes, a brand new convertible. 

One night, several months after they wed, they had a nasty fight. She was drunk and threatened to take the fancy car and leave, but he didn’t want her driving drunk and he didn’t want to lose her and face another divorce, so he grabbed her, maybe too hard, and she called her father and the police. Mark spent the night in jail. 

Some of the details he gave me are now cloudy, but eventually they filed for divorce, and he was loaded down with her debt. At the time, he worked as a manager at Wendy’s and couldn’t afford the mountains of credit card debt, so he filed for bankruptcy. He had no choice. Amy, he said, got away without consequence, except a sprained wrist. 

I ask about the new credit card debt. Perhaps it’s strange for a 23-year-old to be so wound up about debt. But I’d been lucky—my college had been paid for by a family friend, and I have no debt besides a car loan that’s almost paid off.  I was hired at a debt collection agency full-time when I was 18—before credit card offers made their way to my mailbox. After five years of listening to so many people cry, beg, and scream on the phone, I know what debt does to a life. I’d worked at the agency and attended college full-time, juggling 40-hour weeks and homework, losing friends because I was too busy, missing out on campus poetry readings and writing groups—all so I didn’t live outside my means. 

Mark says he now has about $20,000 in credit card debt and $5,000 left on his student loans. This doesn’t include the car lease or the mortgage. We order a pizza, drink sodas, and talk late into the night. 

I tell him about the cutting, the drinking, and the years of verbal and emotional abuse from my mother. He doesn’t seem disgusted or dismayed. He listens. He shares more. He paints a picture of a little boy sitting at the dinner table alone, playing by himself in his room, ignored by his father. Mark, first as a child, then as an adult, witnessed praise and gifts and money showered on his siblings—blood children of his father—while he was left to do it himself because he was adopted. That’s what he tells me and that’s what I believe.

The judge announced us married and everyone clapped.

 After he tells me that his second wife Amy left him holding such heavy debt, after he tells me about years working at grocery stores and fast food places, after he tells me it took over a decade to earn his bachelor’s degree, after he tells me that he built this house for Anne—an ex-girlfriend whose name came up in those emails I found—and then, that Anne broke up with him just months before the house was finished because she didn’t want to be saddled with his debt, after he says how he’s been a stranger in his own family his entire life—a blond-haired blue-eyed freak surrounded by the much loved black-haired children of his father—after he tells me about the time his father punched him, breaking his nose out in the driveway when he was 16, after hours and hours of talking, his eyes sparkling with unshed tears, I say, “I have a $20,000 CD. It just expired and now it’s in a regular savings account. I can pay off your credit card debt.” 

I know I must give this to him, though he’s hesitant to accept. He’s had a good job as a software engineer for only a few years, this new house was just finished in October, and now I’ve moved in with all my clutter and clothes and this baby I carry, and I can’t give him anything in return. I won’t even take his last name. He’s married me, and I must offer him something—a consolation prize, a thank you gift. 

I do not consider all the free hours of housekeeping and childcare he will receive in the coming years. I do not consider myself having anything of worth to offer besides this measly sum of money. I do not consider why he has racked up this new debt—where did the money go? Would he continue to spend so carelessly in the future?—I am a sack of tears and scars and now stretch marks, and all I want is a place to call home.  I give him the $20,000 as if to say, You’re stuck with Catharine, but here, take this check. 

Cat Dixon

Cat Dixon (she/her) is the author of Eva and Too Heavy to Carry  (Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2016 and 2014), and The Book of Levinson and Our End Has Brought the Spring (Finishing Line Press, 2017 and 2015), and Table for Two (Poet’s Haven, 2019). Her new poetry collection, What Happens in Nebraska, will come out this fall. She works as an adjunct creative writing instructor at the University of Nebraska, Omaha.

Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson

We Splash

The side of a building with many fire escapes. The photo appears in black and white with a V-shaped center section in bright, comic-book style color, the building vibrant orange-red.

We love The Plunge. The promise of swimming on a hot summer day is the only reason we get up early and clean breakfast dishes without being told. We hurry-brush our teeth, wash our lagañas, and slip on our new swimsuits. Tia bought them at Mervyns. All the same size but each a different color. Joanna’s green one, of course, fits perfect. Elisa complains that the purple shoulder straps dig into her skin. The back of Delia’s blue one goes up her crack a little, so she puts on a pair of jean shorts to cover her nalgas. Maribel’s orange one is stretched so thin it looks almost see-through and goes low in the front so it’s good she doesn’t have chi-chis yet. She throws on a long T-shirt. Larissa’s is loose all over, the red fabric bunched on the sides and her straps slide off her shoulders. We get a big safety pin from Junior’s diapers and fasten the straps together in the back.

We help each other with hair. French braid for Delia that only Joanna can do tight enough. Larissa uses a lot of gel and slicks her curls back tight against her head, makes the hair ballies wrap twice. It’s so tight her puff ball in the back looks like a second tiny head. But we don’t tell her that. Maribel gets two braids that capture all the feathered hair around her face. Elisa’s hair is short enough to leave loose and Joanna likes hers in one skinny ponytail.

We pack our bag with five towels, our new sunglasses that match our suits, baby oil, and five oranges for snack later. Delia stuffs her book in the bag too.

“Why’d you do that?” Maribel asks.

“So I can read while I dry off.”

“Think that’ll make you look smarter?” Elisa always gets straight As.

“I think if I read ten of these this summer, I get a free personal pan pizza.”

The rest of us scramble back to the room for our own books.

At half past nine, we slip on our new yellow flip flops—Tia found them on clearance, all size 6—and pile into Tio’s blue Chevy Astro van. It’s brand new, doesn’t smell like baby butt or big brother feet like the old van did. We name her Bettina and tell Tio the boys should have to walk everywhere so they don’t mess her up. Maribel and Larissa get in the way back seat. Joanna and Delia sit on the middle bench, and Elisa, because she’s the oldest—12 in September—gets to sit in front. We each get a window so everything is fair.

On our way, Tio stops at the Circle K for cigarettes. He buys us each our own slushie and lets us pick our favorite candy. “Shhh,” he says, “don’t tell Tia.”

We can’t get chocolate because it’ll melt in five seconds. Larissa gets Now and Laters, which will pull a filling out of her molar the next day. Joanna gets Jolly Ranchers, “Because we have the same initials.” Elisa picks Nerds proudly and Delia gets Everlasting Gobstoppers. Maribel takes forever to decide, wanders up and down the candy aisle so long Tio yells that he’s gonna be late for work. 


The rest of us groan. “You did that so you don’t have to share,” we say. 

“I’ll share.” She smirks, knows the rest of us don’t like it.

So later, when a few small bits are stuck in her teeth and she smiles at the boys walking by, we don’t tell her. Just let them laugh. Until her eyes fill with tears. Then we surround her. Delia gets a napkin from the bag to clean Maribel’s teeth. We make her eat an orange to chase away the gross licorice smell. Joanna throws the rest of the licorice away.

But we don’t share our candy with Maribel. “Next time,” we say, “make a better choice.”

Larissa makes a different bad choice. One we pray Tias and Tios don’t find out about or we’ll never get to go back to The Plunge. Maybe because Larissa is the youngest—just turned 11 in May—she doesn’t understand why Joanna’s classmates, the ones who think they’re all that and dissed Joanna because she lives on the east side of town, sit in the spot near the deep end where all the boys jackknife off the high dive and cannon ball from the side.

Lifeguards yell, “Hey!” and “Stop that!” but no one listens. Those girly girls squeal and twist their bodies to avoid splashed water on their faces. We think some of them are wearing makeup. At the pool? How dumb! None of them have hair that’s ready for the water either. We know better. 

Maybe Larissa wants them to see how it feels to not be all perfect. She slips away while the rest of us are reading, runs the length of the pool on the slippery cement to the corner closest to those giggly girls. The rest of us look up when the lifeguard’s whistle blows and he yells, “Walk!”

Larissa combos a jackknife cannonball at this crazy angle and a wave of water the girls can’t twist away from arcs over them, drenches their whole pretty selves. Joanna is horrified, so the rest of us stifle our laughs. The wet girls sputter and screech. The guys clap and hoot at Larissa’s performance. She swims to the opposite side and boosts herself out. 

The noises change to cackles and oohs. Only then do the rest of us see that Junior’s diaper pin didn’t hold and the straps of Larissa’s too-loose suit have failed, the top half folds down at her waist.  She smiles over at us until she feels her nakedness. Her barely budding chi-chis chill in the air. She freezes and embarrassment creeps up her cheeks. The hoots and laughs get louder. The pointing and staring keep Larissa super still.

Maribel grabs a towel and sprints toward Larissa, jumps over two toddlers and twirls by the lifeguard who yells “Walk!” again and reaches out to grab her. The rest of us follow behind with the bag and Larissa’s flip flops. 

We surround her and head to the baño. Maribel gives Larissa her long t-shirt. Delia gives Larissa her jean shorts. Joanna undoes Larissa’s hair bally. It whacks Joanna’s fingers but she holds in her ouch and uses some baby oil to calm Larissa’s frizz.

When Larissa finally speaks, she says, “You see how I splashed those sangronas?”

Tisha Marie Reichle-Aguilera

Chicana Feminist and former Rodeo Queen, Tisha Marie Reichle-Aguilera (she/her) writes so the desert landscape of her childhood can be heard as loudly as the urban chaos of her adulthood. She is obsessed with food. A former high school teacher, she earned an MFA at Antioch University Los Angeles and is an Annenberg Fellow at University of Southern California. She is a Macondista and works for literary equity through Women Who Submit. You can read her other stories and essays at http://tishareichle.com/

Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson

Chicken Legs

The side of a building with many fire escapes. The photo appears in black and white with a V-shaped center section in bright, comic-book style color, the building vibrant orange-red.

Your five-year-old daughter looks up at you with wet eyes and says, “I don’t think she wants to be my friend anymore.” Your stomach falls down an elevator shaft, and suddenly you are 11.

You are 11, and the girl who was your best friend meets you in the alley to walk to school together. “Don’t ever do your hair like that again,” she stabs at you as she walks ahead. The whole way to school you slowly untwirl the coils and braids you woke up extra early to put in. You are stunned and now your hair really does look ridiculous, with a mind of its own since you’ve forced it into and out of plaits. The whole day is spent trying to hide your shameful hair.

One day, you go to sit down with the girls who were your friends and the entire group gets up and moves to a new table, leaving you alone to stare at your lunch. But you did your hair right. Right?

The 11-year-olds are progressing, recruiting some of the older girls. They start following you home from school every day, hurling insults but never getting close enough to push you over. They say things like, “Look at me when I’m talking to you.” And when you don’t look, they throw gravel at your back. Sometimes a stick. But you don’t turn around and you don’t run, either. Somehow, you know to keep your eyes down, your steps measured, your mouth shut.

You start getting stomach pains so you don’t have to go to school. It goes on so long, you are taken to the doctor. The doctor examines you, looks at your mother and says, “There’s nothing wrong with her.” And you almost cry because: (1) You have been found out, and (2) This is the nicest thing anyone has said to you in a while.

The 11-year-old girls must be bored, because they call your house. As you twist the long rotary phone cord over and over your wrist, they take turns hissing into the receiver:




“Pussy, come back to school.”

And now you must, as your stomach is fine.

“Who was that?”

“Nobody, just some friends.”

One day, rather than insults and gravel, the girls throw pieces of bread at you. “Chicken legs!” they call out, in a way to make you know this is a bad thing. “Hey, chicken legs, have some chicken food!” they shout, making bok-bok-bok noises and laughing. You think: (1) Chickens don’t eat bread, do they? (2) Wow, this took some forethought, and (3) Why is even the shape of my body wrong, a personal affront, something I am supposed to control somehow?

And then you look at your daughter’s damp blue eyes, little pools now, needing to say something. Social media tells you the 11-year-old girls are now also grown, with their own daughters. What do they say to their little girls? The right things, most likely. Some wisdom you don’t have access to. Here you are, failing again.

You cannot say, “She still wants to be your friend.” You cannot say,  “Everything will be okay.” You want to say: (1) Harden your heart into stone, or (2) Practice staring into the middle distance. Be still, so still and so quiet, so as not to be detected. Or, (3) Start making art so you can have an endless conversation with yourself.

You bend your chicken legs at the knees, hoist up your tiny daughter. You press her chest to your own stone heart, and say nothing.

Heidi Nieling

Heidi Nieling was raised on the Mississippi River banks of Wisconsin. After receiving her BFA, she transferred to southern Minnesota where she lives with her husband and two six-year olds. Heidi currently works as the chief cook, custodian, activities manager, and Band-Aid applyer of her household. She is also a crochet designer and fiber artist who sneaks in writing when she can. Heidi can be found on Instagram @heidi_nieling

Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson

Dead Shopping Mall

The side of a building with many fire escapes. The photo appears in black and white with a V-shaped center section in bright, comic-book style color, the building vibrant orange-red.

You can still hear the voices from before. The way you and your dad rigged up the old PA system, got the music playing again, sat and let the notes carry through the dead shopping mall. The broken skylight, sun coming in, vines snaking and low enough for you to take a running start, jump, grab and swing when it was a long day and low on food and you and Mom and Dad could use a little light entertainment.

Dad found an old bike in a woodchip park nearby, and though it was mostly rusted—tire rubber burnt and flayed on the rim, and you couldn’t see how it’d ever function again—Dad only saw his own bike from the beforetimes, the gleaming metal of the frame, and the cards he said they’d clip just so for the spokes to hit and give the illusion of a motor. And the tricks they’d pull, he said, and the scars he could show you when the tricks didn’t go so well.

So you scavenged for parts, and Mom painted all the walls in the whole shopping mall, put down record of all the living things that had ever existed and even some that hadn’t, the menagerie of life, before the glow set in and made the world you now know.

Dad made you an automaton friend. Nothing too advanced but enough to stand in for the friends you weren’t able to make, something you could teach to walk alongside your bike, then run when it got the coordination down. You collected knee scrapes and bloody elbows on bike falls as your metal friend scuffed paint and dented aluminum trying to keep up with you, to catch you when you’d fall.

The shopping malls are all dead now, and it isn’t like they weren’t before, but there’s no Mom around to breathe life back into them. They’re just walls and a ceiling, windows and a floor. You can almost see the way the night fire would light up the paintings back then, and the stories Dad would tell, the ones he could speak but could never write down, and when the glow was low you could see the stars peeking past the smoke as it wisped up and out the broken skylight, and Dad said one day he’d build you all a rocket ship. It wouldn’t be much, not like the stalled starliners of the beforetimes, but it’d work just the same, and he’d take you all out of here, away from the glow and the loneliness and the broken everything and you’d find a new home up there, one day, somewhere warm and cozy where you could start over, and it got so the coldest, hungriest nights were filled with the tallest of tales, but those nights you could count on dreams of a makeshift rocket blasting up and through the mall’s skylight, out and past the glow, past the sky, shooting true and into the stars. Those dreams were the best, even if you woke from them with an empty stomach and numb toes, ears red and nearly frostbit.

Your automaton friend took to patrolling just outside the mall’s walls most nights, standing guard for your family, but especially for you. There wasn’t much he could do if there was danger besides wake you. But he insisted that he stand guard, that he repay you and Dad for the life you’d given him. So you left him to it.

You were nine years old when you saw your friend broken to bits and left to twitch on the ground, frost gathering on metal in the early morning cold. When you yelled, it was a sound that came outside of you, and Dad ran over, Mom too. Your friend’s metal head was nearly severed from the body, hanging by a ribbon cable and a couple of wires. Some scavver had made off with most of the body, arms and legs removed, vital components in the chest yanked out. Whoever they were, something had at least kept them from stealing the still-blinking head.

You cried during the entire operation that followed, and even though your friend told you it was okay, that he wouldn’t need a body as long as he had you, you couldn’t help but feel like it was all your fault.

The salvage successful, you asked your dad to add a basket to the front of your old bike. If your friend couldn’t run alongside you, he could at least ride along.

You’re back now, twenty years to the day since you left, with your pack out in front of you, and the glow is low today, mercifully so. Mom and Dad are just a burning memory, but this dead shopping mall still stands. You reach into the pack, find what you’re looking for. Who you’re looking for. The primary colors of youth are gone, but you can almost remember them as your old friend opens his eyes and looks out at his birthplace: the building where so much was taken from both of you, the building where everything was given. You try to frame it in a broken skylight in your mind, to keep its bigness small: so much smoke trailing away out and to the stars. Sometimes you wonder if the world’s so small, or if it’s so big you can’t stand it. You can’t decide which, but you don’t need to make up your mind just yet.

Nick Olson

Nick Olson (he/they) is the author of the novels Here’s Waldo and The Brother We Share and is the Editor-in-Chief of (mac)ro(mic). His third novel, Afterglow, will release in June of 2022. A Best Small Fictions nominee, finalist for Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Award, and 2021 Wigleaf longlister in and from Chicagoland, he’s been published in SmokeLong Quarterly, Hobart, Fiction Southeast, and other fine places. Find him online at nickolsonbooks.com or on Twitter @nickolsonbooks.

Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson

Take Me Somewhere Nice

The side of a building with many fire escapes. The photo appears in black and white with a V-shaped center section in bright, comic-book style color, the building vibrant orange-red.


My fingers had loosened their grasp on God, and my eyes were on the door of the high school classroom where we held the Christian club I’d started the previous fall. It was hot for April. I needed air, I needed to walk around campus with my five-dollar Walkman, smoke-thick voices of grunge singers drizzling into my ears. The other leaders watched me, waiting for me to speak, but the words were chalk dust on my tongue. I’d heard them talking lately, voices low as I passed: What’s going on with her?

I hung back until chitchat hummed through the room. I turned toward the door again, lungs thirsting for outside air, and then the girl with lavender eyes walked in and I felt an ancient familiarity, like night fires and the smell of leaves in warm wind. 


I pretended I wasn’t looking for Max as I walked around at lunch the next day. When I found her crouched in a corner between brick buildings in a hoodie and headphones, I sat down. “Sorry if this is weird,” I said, meeting her purple eyes only for a second. I handed her a folded square of notebook paper on which I’d written everything: how the boy who called himself a pagan had lured me from God and had then been frightened by my intensity. How I couldn’t go back to Christian warrior and saving souls for the Lord! 

The day after that, she handed me a letter. 

“It’s not weird,’ she said. 


It rained that fall, and the world was all purples and greens like the lights I strung in my room and the sad, monotone Scottish rock singers moaning through my stereo. Without her contact lenses, Max’s eyes looked like sunlight shining through the bits of cola-colored glass we picked up at the beach, tying them with string to make windchimes. We spent hours on my bed, lying head-to-foot, our hands meeting in the middle. This is normal, right? we’d say, our fingers tracing each other. Friends do this, right? It was vertigo, I was falling into something and there was no stopping it. And God loomed overhead like a great black shroud, a ceiling pressing down on us, stealing all the air. 


It was a year before we kissed, and by then my love for Max churned in my chest like massive clouds gathering, rolling over one another in a bruised sky. It drenched me like the rain that streaked my Volvo’s windshield as we drove around to coffee shops or the record store in the afternoons. Little day trips of desperation. When the darkness of my bedroom and the raw, slow guitars from the boombox became too heavy, I’d ask her, “Where should we go today?”

She’d shrug and smirk sadly. “Somewhere nice?”

I knew what she meant. Not somewhere expensive or fancy, but somewhere soft and warm, with mellow lights and sweet-scented air. A slow, sheltered place where we could let ourselves ask questions, let whatever this was between us unfurl like a hand opening, without the demand to define and damn it before we could even whisper its name.

When Max’s lips found mine that first time, I felt heavy, solid things shifting themselves inside me. After the pagan boy, I’d sunk into my misery, worn it like a comfortable old coat, draped with musky incense, minor-key guitar. But I’d held in the back of my mind the possibility of returning to God, a secret coin in my pocket, turning it between my fingers. This kiss, the taste of her, her scent like smoke and leaves—there was no reigning this in. Her amber sea glass eyes. Her narrow fingers. The rain against the windows. My life was petals pelted by rain, determined to bloom outward and outward despite the pounding drops knocking them to the concrete. I tried to cling to tangible things, like the punk rock mixtapes she made for me, the hand-scrawled Emily Dickinson poems she slipped in my pockets. But I dreamt I was in a car sliding backward down a steep hill. I felt dragged away into eternity, unable to stop loving her, unable to stop believing we were damned for it. 


The horizon of Max’s set lips across from me in my Volvo that night. The eerie orange streetlight painting jagged shapes across her face, her eyes quivering like the skin atop water. It was too much: the constant holding back, restraining our hands, our lips which once explored each other now reciting Bible verses. Each time, we’d failed, clutching at each other in the darkness, feeling the heavy, metallic condemnation. Stuck in a loop of loving and then repenting. 

Her mouth was a flatline of finality as she said, I can’t do this anymore. Words bubbled to the surface of my mind and popped, words meant to make her stay. Their futility settled over me like snow, the chill of this knowledge seeping into my bones. We were over.

Cloves and Bones 

The air was thick with salt as I walked up the front steps to the house in San Francisco’s Sunset District. Do you like bones and moonshine, fire dancing and accordions? the Craig’s List ad had read. Lavender-grey streaks of fog danced across the sky like cream in black tea. I shuffled my feet on the front porch, wondering what they would ask, how I could talk my way into this house by the sea. I was afraid of how much I needed this: to let myself be shaped by this city of salt and fog.

The man who answered the door was smoking a clove cigarette. He was in his late twenties, tall and tattooed, his eyes lined with kohl, his turmeric-colored braid stretching to his tailbone. He eyed my coat with its wide black and white vertical stripes like an old-time prisoner’s outfit, my oversized thrift-store leather boots, and the calligraphic swirls of eyeliner at my temples. “I think you’ll be a good fit,” he said.

I packed the Volvo with only a few things: hoodies and headphones, a boombox, a book of Emily Dickinson poems, bottles full of sea glass. I painted my new walls: maroon, forest green, black. I played a CD of Bach cello suites and lay on my back on my new giant futon, watching the ripe orange moon outside my massive window. And the fog swirled against the glass like the smoke of ancient fires, painting the mystery of my future.

Noreia Rain

Noreia Rain is walking below lights like candleflame pearls strung in the trees, the air brushed with roses. She needs this, the strange poetry in her ears, the long shadows below the streetlights. She is straining to hear ancient whispers in forgotten languages. She is tearing apart the burlap, desperate to find the rich soil blooming with thorned, reckless, exuberant life underneath. Her writing has appeared in Transfer Magazine and The Ana. Her poem “bitten” was featured in Wingless Dreamer’s 2021 Halloween Anthology. She is currently seeking a publisher for her poetry collection, The Yellow Inbetween, while working on a memoir and a second collection of poems.

Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson

fire on water

The side of a building with many fire escapes. The photo appears in black and white with a V-shaped center section in bright, comic-book style color, the building vibrant orange-red.

first it appeared like an oil of rainbow, 
shimmering under the sunlight, dancing 

with the ripples & stretching toward the 
shore to baptize little multicolored stones. 

i have seen fire run like an athlete on water. 
i have seen it lick a river like a child

does a bowl of his favorite broth. in the place 
i come from, i have seen fire dance on the skins of 

men who received an impromptu visitation 
of misfortune. they say: something must ignite a fire.

what if the nascence of burning is within, would you 
call it self-forging, like the malleability of red steel?

i have heard stories of how a memory can incinerate
the soul & make the body: a warehouse of ash. perhaps,

all of us have mastered the art of our burnings;
we’ve learned to feed this flame with water to quiet

our consummations. i know from my childhood, between 
my first tooth and first walk, i have accessorized my lungs 

with enough gasoline to fuel my continuity. like 
holding water in your hands, i submit to the fluidity of time.

Joshua Effiong

Joshua Effiong, Frontier VI, is a writer and digital artist from the Örö people of Nigeria. His works have appeared or are forthcoming in The Kalahari Review, Rough Cut Press, Madrigal Press, Titled House, The Indianapolis Review, Chestnut Review, among other places. He is the author of a poetry chapbook, Autopsy of Things Left Unnamed (2020). Find him on Instagram @josh.effiong and twitter @JoshEffiong

Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson

Floyd’s Left Leg

The side of a building with many fire escapes. The photo appears in black and white with a V-shaped center section in bright, comic-book style color, the building vibrant orange-red.

“Fucker!” Floyd yelped loudly when the car door grazed his calf as Annie opened it.

“Oh, I’m sorry, hon!”

“The fuck you are.” Floyd slapped the door and instead of offering his hand to help her out of the car, spun on his heels, and headed toward the church.

Annie took a deep breath, pursed her lips. Floyd is sensitive about his leg, she told herself. It ain’t you. He would have sounded off at anyone. She collected her purse and swung herself around in the seat, grabbed the handle with one hand, and heaved herself out.

Floyd was maybe twenty feet away and had stopped, took out a cigarette, and lit it.

“Hon,” Annie said, “can’t you wait til after? You know I hate when they can smell it on you.”

“To hell with them. Either the good lord is the good lord of tobacco too or he ain’t the good goddamn lord at all.”

Annie walked toward him. “Please.”

“You drug the damn door right across my leg! It hurt and now I need to calm down before I sit in there for two hours listening to bullshit.”

Church was, for Floyd, either “bullshit” or “snake oil,” depending on his mood. When he’d had a few beers he became philosophical and described religion as “more about feeding the preacher’s pocket than feeding my soul.” When he was in a miserable mood it was just “so much bullshit to keep us from having any goddamn fun.”

Ten days earlier, Floyd had been at the gas plant when he stumbled and fell on a catwalk, causing his left leg to be pressed against a generator exhaust pipe. His leg had been burnt enough that he was sent to the emergency room and had to talk to a company lawyer who gave him two days off, paid. Since then, Floyd had walked with a little limp and complained about the pain. He wouldn’t sleep with the sheet on his leg, and groaned when he put his pants on, saying the fabric itself felt like sandpaper on the burn.

Annie had been patient, of course, as always. She kept the dog from jumping on him, made cold compresses for him every morning when he got home. She made his follow-up appointments and went to the pharmacy for his various medicines on her lunch break, or after her shift, if the diner happened to be busy. She took care of him, like she always had, and all she asked was for him to go to church with her without complaint. She’d been raised in the church. It was important to her. And, she often had to remind him, if she was important to him then he’d go without complaint.

But his leg was burnt. Not deeply, but it had been terribly red for a few days after the incident, so she was willing, always, to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The accident had happened on a Thursday, so of course she had stayed home with him that first Sunday. Last night she had asked if he was well enough to attend services the next morning and he’d said that he might be. It had taken some urging but he did finally get dressed this morning and say, “Well, guess I’m going.”

Floyd flicked his cigarette to the ground as they walked toward the door. As was the custom, Pastor Edgar stood at the door greeting each member as they arrived.

“Floyd and Mrs. Turner. So very glad to see you here this morning.” He took Annie’s hand in both of his. “Sorry you missed Sunday School, of course, but I understand you’ve had your hands full taking care of your husband?”

Floyd cleared his throat. “Yeah, she’s had to watch me hobble around a bit.”

Annie smiled. “Oh, you know Floyd. He’s strong as a bull and twice as ornery!” 

Pastor Edgar laughed and Floyd said, “Well, I guess we better get in there. Don’t wanna miss the show.”

They began making their way through the crowded foyer. Channel Methodist wasn’t a large congregation, but the building, built some thirty years earlier, was now too small to comfortably handle the flock.

As they walked through, Annie saw a child running toward Floyd. Before she could warn him, the kid barreled into Floyd’s leg. She screwed her face up, hoping to get there before Floyd let out a holler, or worse, said something to the little boy, but Floyd didn’t seem to notice. Annie was confused.

When they found a pew, Floyd started a conversation with Gary Miller and Annie reached for a hymn book on the backside of the pew ahead of them. She made sure it bumped Floyd’s leg, right where he’d set the cold compress the night before—all the while complaining that she’d sure taken her sweet time while he’d sat there in agony.

Annie considered all this as the announcements were made. She wrestled with what to do as the choir sang hymns 38, 232, and verses 1, 2, 3, and 5 of hymn 166. As Pastor Edgar began his sermon, titled “What Are We to Do?” Annie considered the man next to her, who had fallen asleep, sometime between verse 5 of Hymn 166 and the reading of the day, the Gospel of St. Luke, chapter 3, verses 1-18.

As they exited, again Pastor Edgar stood by, shaking hands and politely refusing offers for dinner.

Annie extended her hand and her offer of a casserole dinner, as the moment demanded, and then, after Pastor Edgar assured her that he had a dinner engagement at his mother’s in a few hours, Annie said, “Pastor, Floyd was wondering if you might pray over his leg. That it be healed.”

“Do what now?” Floyd, unlit cigarette in his hand, seemed to sway backwards as if a strong wind had caught him.

“Pray over his leg?” It was obvious that Pastor Edgar was equally unprepared.

“Yes,” Annie continued. “It’s been ten days, and it still hurts him terribly.”

“Now, Annie,” Floyd said, “no cause for that.”

“Why on earth not, hon?”

Pastor Edgar swallowed hard, his discomfort apparent. This sort of thing was uncommon, Annie knew. She’d never asked or even seen a congregant actually ask Pastor Edgar to pray over someone. Still, he was a man of God and, while he was no Pentecostal snake-handler, his job was to pray. Annie smiled and held his gaze until he turned to Floyd. “I could say a few words, if you’d like.”

“I think that would be good, Floyd.”

“Well I don’t want to be a bother.”

“Oh, I’m sure it isn’t a bother, is it Pastor?”

“Well, no, of course not.”

Annie looked at Floyd. He was pale and small looking. The unlit cigarette still held between his fingers, his lips quivered.  Annie knew there were few things Floyd hated more than bowing his head to anyone or anything, the Lord included. On any other occasion, he would have balked, refused, and walked away. But Annie had maneuvered herself and the Pastor into his way, with folks behind Floyd, staring, wondering why the Turners were taking so long to say their goodbyes. Floyd’s face was now red with embarrassment and Annie knew that was the only thing he hated more than praying.

“Bow your head, hon.”

Pastor Edgar proceeded to ask the Lord for His healing mercies, and that a hedge of protection be placed around the Turner household.

“Amen,” he finished.

“Amen,” Annie replied.

As they walked back to the car, Floyd was quiet. He started around the car to his door when he noticed Annie standing at hers, staring at him. He paused then came back to her side, opening the door for her.

“Thank you, hon,” she said, and got in. Floyd went back to the driver’s side and sat behind the wheel. He hesitated with the key, and stared straight ahead. Annie took the rearview mirror, turned it, and checked her hair.

“I think I’d like you to take me out this evening, Floyd. There’s a new seafood place up in Jacinto City that Pam told me about.” With that she sat back and began pulling a cigarette out of the pack she’d left on the dashboard. “Could you light me up, hon?”

Floyd looked out the way an animal at the zoo looks out of a cage. He reached into his breast pocket, produced a lighter, and turned to her.

“Course,” he said.

Travis Cravey

Travis Cravey is a high school maintenance man in Southeastern Pennsylvania. His first collection, Manifold, was published by Emerge Literary Journal in August 2021. Honestly, he seems like a pretty good guy.

Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson

Better Things in Pittsburg

The side of a building with many fire escapes. The photo appears in black and white with a V-shaped center section in bright, comic-book style color, the building vibrant orange-red.

I thought of you when she turned to me with those pleading desperate eyes and begged for us to go away somewhere. I knew from the way she spoke that she’d go anywhere I wanted. It came as no surprise that she agreed to Pittsburg. 

When she and I lived together, she used to do this thing where she’d climb into my bed when the lights were out and we were alone and she’d tell me that she didn’t like girls but she liked me. And my skin would get hot and she’d giggle at how I’d blush. She’d tease me for my goosebumps that popped up whenever our hands touched. But when the lights came on, she’d act completely different. She’d tell her friends I was the one to flirt with her. 

But then she moved out. Now whenever we see each other, she hangs off my arm in public and follows after me. I think she got lonely. She reminds me of how I was with you. Just more obvious. 

You never knew I loved you, did you? I can’t blame you. It’s my way I guess. I’m not one to seize opportunities when they present themselves. I tend to let that opportunity pack up and move hours away and find other people who love them. 

“The University of Pittsburgh?” She asked after I typed the directions in. She sounded skeptical but turned when the phone told her to. 

“It has beautiful architecture.” I replied, staring out the window. 



To be honest I didn’t know if it was true or not, I just needed a reason, an excuse, and she would have taken any. 

“Well then,” She smiled at me, “I can’t wait to see it.” 

I couldn’t help but think about how sweet she looked. 

She had this habit—a favorite hobby of hers— of leading me on time and time again. To be fair, I let her. I knew her tricks, the little traps she set. I stepped into them willfully. I never brushed her hand away when it found its way onto my knee. And I always let myself melt into her hands when they cradled my face or traced patterns into my skin. It felt nice to have someone flatter me and touch me the way she did, even if I knew it didn’t mean anything to her. 

She made me feel the way I felt when I was younger and you were still around. How willing I was to fall in love. 

Do you know what I thought about when I started to fall for her?

I thought about how much I missed you. And, suddenly, I felt so overwhelmed with how far away you were. I wanted to see you when I loved her. I wanted you to stop it. 

I thought I might find you at the University of Pittsburgh. I remember when you told me you were accepted there.

She draped herself over my arm and told people who didn’t ask that I was her girlfriend. She looked to the sky, admiring the excuses I’d made—the buildings, the bridges—while I searched the crowds of students and cars that rolled by. She held my hand and rested her head on my shoulder, and I was embarrassed—embarrassed of what you might think if my eyes ever did find yours in the swarm of people. She whispered in my ear, trying to coax a blush to my cheeks. 

I could hardly hear her. I could have sworn I heard your voice everywhere. 

I searched the museums and greens and sidewalks. I examined every face. I stayed until it was dark. And still, I couldn’t find you. Her hand tightened around mine. She smelled nice. I knew when we went back to the hotel she’d kiss my cheek and watch my skin redden and I’d think of you and I’d think that I was in over my head.

Being in love with her feels like falling out of love with you. And then I’m mourning you all over again. Losing you all over again. You promised me better things when you went away. But there I stood, in Pittsburg, and all I could think was that my better things had been with you.

Cole Hediger

Cole Hediger is a Philadelphia-based writer and student at Temple University. She has previously been published in Sunstroke Magazine with her piece “Breaking Ice” and in Bloom Magazine with her poem “Self Exploration.” While Cole’s procrastinating writing, she’s watching movies and reading.

Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson