seeing and other holy tricks

A cluster of barrel cacti dominated by their spiky spines. The image is split with a black V shape and the center of the V is in full color with the sides remaining in black and white.

(after Jamaica Kincaid)

this is how you cast a spell, child: pray your hands together, weave your grimy, fruit-stained fingers into a basket tight enough to hold the serpent hissing at its seams. this is how you pull your eyelids tight to your skin. this is how you resist the temptation of sight, resist defiant pupils that wander where they shouldn’t and talk out of turn and ask too many questions and echo a heartbeat that catches in your throat like a prayer half-digested. this is how you swallow bad Scripture: mouth the words down and keep your gaze on the ground until the Father in heaven and the father at home are one and the same. this is how you fold yourself thin like Sunday School sheets: pastor’s kid, lightweight, not down to cause any trouble. this is how you smile and nod when Pa and Ma rant about the liberal gay menace (but what if the menace is living under your roof?) this is how you sneak onto Yahoo Answers when Pa and Ma are asleep to find out whether you’re gay in ten simple questions (is it okay to look without touching?) this is how you close the window and shut down the computer before they catch their son in the sinful act. this is how you dodge questions about what girls from youth group you’re crushing on. this is how you hold the shame in your lungs, then your stomach, then your entire body. this is how to curve your back into the shape of an apology that will never be enough. this is how you live with your eyes closed—no boys to tempt you into ruin, no pastors to root out your sins. this is how you cast yourself out of the church before they can: drift downstream, tread water, clasp your chafed hands into a straw vessel sinking faster than you can bail, rock them together like a rowboat in a never-ending storm, pray for the miracle worker to come and change you like they say he will. father, don’t you know you raised me right out of your home? where do i go but away?

this is how Father answers your exile: with a wave of good Samaritans washing over you. this is how, in the first week of college, you meet PJ, then Claudia, then Reverend Jordan (and if a loving creator did not make people like this, who did?) this is how you find God in a family of outcasts; find yourself back on your knees on a chapel floor for the first time in four years. this is how the ocean swallows a prodigal son and spits them back out, salt water welling at stubborn eyelids, flooding them open. this is what tough love tastes like: a rush of light in your mouth, sharp enough to blind at first, too brackish to digest in one gulp. this is how to throw somebody into the deep, baptize them in grief and heartbreak, pull them back out gasping alive. this is the story of Moses and the burning bush, Jonah and the whale, Paul on the road to Damascus, Jesus speaking in tongues. this is the riddle you have left us breathless to untangle. 
this is how you cast the spell anew. this is how to sing the song in your own voice: i was blind, but now i see. this is how you believe in magic, how you still find light in this world when it is cracking apart. this is how you untangle your hands, feel your grief flood out until all that is left are the fingers, ready to weave together something new. this is how you learn to touch, to embrace, to cast the words out and pray they kindle a path forward. (but Father, what if i never find my way to you?) child, you mean to tell me you have not yet seen me in the searching?


m.o. (or Mo) is a high-school educator and writer in the East Bay. In college, he self-published his first book, speech therapy, in order to fundraise for the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence. They have also published work in the Hypocrite Reader, Gnashing Teeth Publishing, Porcupine Reader, and Lake County Bloom. When not teaching or writing, Mo loves hanging out at the local rock climbing gym, scream-singing to the latest K-pop hits in the car, and curating a sick collection of discount frozen dinners. You can find them on Twitter @mokngpoetry and online at

Header photography and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson

When I Wassssss Young

A cluster of barrel cacti dominated by their spiky spines. The image is split with a black V shape and the center of the V is in full color with the sides remaining in black and white.

(content warning: childhood trauma, strangulation, snakes)

When I was young, I loved minerals. My favorite corner of our local natural science museum was home to the gem vault and its glass cases full of sparkling stones. I was so small in the beginning that I had to stand on tiptoe just to catch a glimpse of them on my own. My second favorite place was the gift shop where miniature synthetic replicas were sold. Each time we visited, I was allowed to buy one, until soon I had my own collection at home in a tiny, clear plastic container. I liked the way their bright colors jumbled together. I liked the rattling sound they made when I gave the box a gentle shake.

When I was young, I had beautiful hair. At least, that’s what everyone on the playground always told me. My long locks were straight, shiny, silky, and blacker than a bottomless hole. All the popular girls, who would never acknowledge me otherwise, came up to ask whether I washed with kids’ shampoo or shared a bottle with my mother. As if those were the only two options. I told them the tangled truth, that neither theory was correct.

When I was young, my best friend tried to strangle me with her bare hands. She did so repeatedly, each time taking me to what felt like the brink of death. I didn’t understand then what I’d done to provoke her. I didn’t understand then that I was only a stand-in for monsters at home that she herself was too young to fight. Most of all, I didn’t understand then why I never even considered confronting her until her family had moved away and left me without the option. I never saw her again, though later, much later, I desperately wished I could.

When I was young, I was afraid of snakes. My father and I regularly took weekend walks down by the creek behind our house, during which we’d swap stories about our weekday lives. On one excursion, he pointed out the dark, cylindrical shapes near the water, like coil pots made of unbaked clay. “Snakes in hibernation,” he warned me. Five poisonous varieties roamed our region, so we had to stay vigilant: “Remember, by the time you hear that telltale rattle, it’s already too late.” I wasn’t afraid of their venom, though. I wasn’t afraid of their fangs. I was afraid of their entire bodies, the way they looked like they could wind themselves around my neck like a garrote, stealing both my breath and my voice in one swift movement.

When I was young, I started losing my beautiful hair. At first, I only found a few stray strands curled around my hair elastics, or little nests in the drain strainer of my bathtub. But by ninth grade, I had a bald spot the size of a half dollar on top of my head. I began parting my hair to the other side. Instead of spending weekends at birthday parties, I spent them at doctors’ offices. Everyone there told me I was perfectly healthy. They wondered aloud if maybe I was putting too much pressure on myself. “Relax, Medusa,” they said. “You are young. You have nothing to worry about.”

When I was young, we dissected earthworms in Biology class before moving on to larger, more anatomically complex animals. I tried not to think about their snake-like bodies as I ran the blade of my scalpel down their cold bellies. In that classroom, my hair continued to betray me. My lab experiments were often tainted by wayward strands. I became so notorious for this dubious feat that if the same problem befell anyone else, our teacher would call it “pulling a Medusa,” and she always watched with a crooked smile as my cheeks burned at the taunting remark.

When I was young, that same teacher informed us that she could tell whether a girl was a virgin just by looking at her fully clothed. She uttered this proclamation in front of the boys in our class, too. They spent the rest of the semester ogling us girls from each and every angle, their x-ray gazes hunting for the key that unlocked the puzzle box of our bodies. My hair only grew thinner after that. I began wrapping a scarf around my head to hide the patches of exposed scalp. No one ever called those thinning tresses beautiful anymore.

When I was young, I woke up one morning to the soothing sound of sibilant voices inviting me back from the depths of sleep. “It’sss almosssst noon, Medusssssa,” they hissed, in a Greek chorus of collective sighs. Earnest. Filled with expectations. I opened my eyes to find myself face-to-face-to-face-to-face-to-face with a seemingly endless parade of rattlesnake heads crowding my personal space. I thought I must be dreaming. I thought I was trapped in my worst nightmare. But I couldn’t wake up because I was already awake. I scrambled out from under the covers to escape the hotbed of slithering creatures that must have somehow invaded my pillow during the night. But when I did, they followed. Because, I quickly realized, they had sprouted from the back of my head the way my hair once had. I screamed.

When I was young, I thought this new development was a punishment. A punishment for my vanity. My fear. My ssexuality. Some cruel act of puberty. I avoided mirrorss, refussed to look at what was right in front of me. Until an amazing thing happened: I opened my lidss in the middle of Biology classss and found my teacher sstaring back. As ssoon as she made eye contact, she turned to ssstone. Gemssstone, to be exact. Not a ssstatue, but a perfectly sssmooth pebble of mottled green-and-black ssserpentine that rocked gently in the ssspot where she once ssstood. The whole classssss ssscreamed.

When I wassss older, I realized my new head of hair wassss actually a gift. Because of it, I was eventually able to overcome my fear of baldnessssssss, of ssssnakessss, of humanssss and their threatening pressssencessss. I managed to ssssusssstain fulfilling relationshipssss without face-to-face communication. But ssssometimessss I encountered people who reminded me of that teacher, thosssse boyssss, my childhood friend. When these unfortunate souls looked me in the eyessss, I wassss still richly rewarded. With ssssstunning cutsssss of authentic amber, opal, sssssapphire, aquamarine, onyx, garnet, emerald, amethyssssst, and cubic zirconia. Very sssssoon, I had to find a much bigger box for my ssssstonesssss. And the delicioussssss sssssssound they produced when agitated echoed like the ghosssssstssssss of my new friendssssss’ missssssssssssing tailssssss.

Susan L. Lin

Susan L. Lin is a Taiwanese American storyteller who hails from southeast Texas and holds an MFA in Writing from California College of the Arts. Her novella Goodbye to the Ocean won the 2022 Etchings Press novella prize and is now available to purchase at, where you can also find more of her published work. In her spare time, she enjoys sewing summer dresses, dancing to ’90s hits, reading mystery thrillers, and streaming TV.

Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson

Survival Guide

A cluster of barrel cacti dominated by their spiky spines. The image is split with a black V shape and the center of the V is in full color with the sides remaining in black and white.

Apply primer. 

When the bruise is at its darkest—any shade between red and violet—apply green concealer first, then regular concealer, one shade lighter than your foundation. Once it begins to yellow, substitute lavender concealer for the green. Then foundation, repeat; cover in powder, setting spray. Make every effort to ensure your makeup can outlast tears, sweat, the various liquors and juices that form a thin, sticky film on your skin that remains after you return home from your closing shift. Check every angle of your face—first in the bathroom mirror, then in your phone camera when you get behind the bar to test the lighting. Remember which angle makes the bruise the least visible when you’re talking to her.

She wants to help you. She’s a good friend, and you hate her for it. She’s a lawyer, and she acts like one, studying you with pleading eyes from behind her beer when she sits at one of the iron stools surrounding the horseshoe-shaped bar. Avoid being alone with her, getting cornered. You know you will cry. You always do. 

The truth comes out when she asks you to share a Pall Mall just outside the warm, cheerful brewery on a cold night in early February. She starts crying, and your own eyes begin to sting. But you quickly fight the tears down, walk back in like nothing happened and pour yourself, and any of the regulars who desire one, another drink. 

You move into the spare bedroom of her house by the end of the month. She keeps it too cold. You wear wool socks to bed, hug your knees to your chest under layers of quilts and it’s still not enough. You think about the first night you met him, how out of nowhere he appeared as you searched your backpack for a lighter. The way the flame, and the sudden glow of his smile appeared in the dark. You don’t sleep. You toss and turn in a bed that is not yours, in a house you’ll never be able to afford. You remember the night you both searched his apartment at three in the morning for his birth certificate, motivated by copious amounts of cocaine and a desire to find out his birthtime. Defeated, he sat on the worn futon, and you on the concrete floor, your head collapsed onto his bony knee, his fingernails tracing mandalas on the back of your neck.

You don’t want to be here. You don’t want to be anyone’s charity case. You’ve always done exactly what you’ve wanted. Each time you’d go to him, you couldn’t wait to leave your life behind: your boyfriend of two years, the home you were building with each other. Your hair would stand up on your neck when he opened the door, your flesh crawling with the illicitness of it all. Eventually, you confessed the affair to your boyfriend, and now you live in your friend’s spare bedroom, making promises of never seeing him again. You lie, more than ever. Only this time you’re doing it while you’re eating her food, drinking her expensive coffee, living in her house. She gives you clothes that no longer fit her: well-worn T-shirts advertising restaurants you’ve never been to, cities you’ve never even passed by. You wear them, like you wear the guise of a girl that is changing, but inside everything pulls you back to him.

The first time you sneak back to his place while she is at work, he takes your phone from your hands. When you go to reach for it, he slaps you with the back of his hand across your face. His ring collides with your cheekbone and leaves a mark. She asks you about it. You lie, smudged makeup. She looks at you defiantly: “Gal, that’s a bruise.” 

Be careful of what you say over text messages.

Ever since that first morning you woke up in his apartment, you feel the space between your legs swell when you see his name on your phone. You texted through the days that followed: talking dirty, typing fantasies of bondage and submission. He’s more methodical than you think, or at the least, opportunistic. Now, he throws it back in your face: If you ever tell anybody, he will show them that he was only giving you what you wanted. 

Trust your gut. 

Only your gut builds cobblestoned paths straight to your demise, illuminates your endangerment in a soft pink light. Your gut placed you behind steering wheels when you were too drunk to walk, before you were even old enough to get your license. Your gut asked your friend for drugs when you were both in the back of a paddy wagon (on camera) on the way to the city jail. Your gut shared a home with a man who loved you, and kept leading you to the apartment of this one instead, for sex, attention, drama and other reasons you can’t name. Your gut would gleefully skip barefoot across a path of hot coals to pick up a one-dollar scratch off ticket on the other side. You know love is not this. You’ve had love better than this; you could count it on both of your hands. Your gut chose this instead. 

Come up with a safety plan. 

It’s not like it is in the movies. If you leave, he won’t stop you. He will never pursue you after you are gone. He will have someone else in his bed before you can sign the paperwork for your new apartment. You have nothing stopping you from never answering him again. You choose to stay, again and again and again. You once heard in a court-mandated AA meeting that some people are addicted to being sick. Sickness is a part of them as inseparable as flesh. Love isn’t strong enough for you unless it has you in a chokehold.

One June day, he confesses he’s sleeping with someone else. You had been too, but as always, you feign innocence. You slap him; he chokes you until you lose consciousness. You wake on your bed, with him, then run down the stairs from your attic apartment. He chases you, falls on his knees in the backyard and begs you to stay. That night, you take a pregnancy test. You don’t remember your last period, don’t remember much of anything. The months stretch behind you like a blank white hallway. It hurts when you swallow from where his fingers gripped your throat. You read recently that people who have been strangled by their partners are over 700% more likely to be murdered by them the next year; that seven seconds of occlusion of blood is when permanent brain damage starts to occur. As the second blue line begins to appear on the drugstore test, you are too stunned to pick up your phone. You don’t know who to call. 

Be prepared for bold people to ask you: “Why did you keep the baby?”

Not so bold people will wonder the same. You don’t owe them an answer, but what you can say is: “No matter what, I was ready to be a mother.” 

You don’t tell them about the first one. You were 18 years old; you scraped together the money your Irish Catholic father gave you for books that semester and the money you saved working Sundays serving pancakes to churchgoers at a Cracker Barrel. The procedure took 15 minutes, but you sat in the waiting room filled with downcast eyes and a heavy silence for most of the day. The ultrasound tech sounded like she had once sat where you sat when she said: “I legally have to show you the heartbeat, but you don’t have to look at the screen.” You looked at the screen, the creature swimming like a jellyfish. You never once regretted it, but you promised yourself you’d never do that again. 

Promises were made to be broken. You make an appointment for a date the week before it would be too late, just in case. You drive to the clinic in Denver still undecided. It’s a regular doctor’s office, in a regular building, without a protester to be found. Here you are, ten years later, feeling more lost than you were back then. You sit in your car for 20 minutes, staring at the black windows against the beige building, knowing for less than a thousand dollars, you could walk into those doors and walk out the same, a woman who only had to care for herself. A decade ago, you knew exactly what you wanted. Now, you are ambivalent, passive. You’d hoped the doctor wouldn’t find a heartbeat when you attended your prenatal appointments. You’d hoped to wake up in the morning and see blood. You’d hoped that something would happen that was out of your control, that would allow you a second chance to have your first child in the kind of healthy home you grew up in, a chance to get this part right. You, like always, longed to slip quietly out of this situation, blameless and innocent. 

You choose to be a mother.

Now, when his hands lunge for you, you must protect your stomach instead of your face.

You try to make the best of it. You act meeker than ever, pick his clothes up off the carpet and fold them after he throws them to the ground in a rage. You twist yourself endlessly to fit into what you think he wants. You watch the animated version of The Addams Family on repeat, sinking deeper into the well your body has created on the king-sized mattress on his bedroom floor. He rubs your feet. Starts to smoke his cigarettes outside. Makes you bubble baths with off-brand dish soap, applies clay face masks, massages shoulders, cleans your skin when you don’t have the strength. He grabs your face, goes to smack it, his hand remains in the air; he throws a pot instead. He’s changing. He promises you he has changed. As your stomach grows, the walls close in. You stray further and further from the woman a younger you wanted to become.

You leave his apartment for what you promised yourself would be the last time. 

You’d made a plan. You go to your 20-week anatomy scan. The ultrasound tech shakes your stomach to try and get the baby to move. She asks if you ate breakfast, says the baby must be in a food coma. You hope that’s all it is, the first of many worries you will have for the life growing inside you. She has you walk around, change positions, go pee. Then she checks your baby’s every body part, wordlessly typing notes that make no sense to you. It’s a boy, what his father has always wanted. He’s healthy, a relief to you. You watch your son kick on the screen and feel his tiny feet against the wall of your uterus. You’d been feeling that flutter for weeks, but chalked it up to your anxiety. 

The day after your appointment, you drive east. You have a financed car, $2,000 in your bank account, clothes, and six black and white sonogram pictures of your child’s body parts: his long limbs, his feet, his testicles labeled “IT’S A BOY!!!!” You are afraid to face your family. You are ashamed: first in a long history of devout Catholics to be pregnant outside of wedlock, by a man they’ve never even heard of. You drive to Kansas City, pay for two nights at the cheapest hotel you can find. It is luxury to you, stretching into crisp white sheets, stretching into silence. You watch reality TV for two straight days with the lights off and the blackout curtains drawn, order sushi and BBQ and have them leave it outside the door. 

When you arrive back in Kentucky, the state you’d left five years before with no intention of returning, you sleep on an air mattress in your little sister’s spare bedroom. You deliver food from Applebee’s and Chick-fil-A in red insulated bags over and over again for laughable wages until you’re welcomed back to the same restaurant where you worked during college. You work doubles; you work seventeen days straight. Your feet swell. You buy new shoes. Now you can afford an apartment. Your mother and your two sisters take you to Target and they split the cost three ways. You leave with a metal trash can, plastic plates, and a vacuum. In front of the cashier, you shuffle back and forth in your oversized Sketchers and sheepishly dribble out I-can’t-thank-you-enoughs. You’ve become their charity case.

February comes around. Your wrists and fingers swell so much you can’t grasp a pencil. You wear a carpal tunnel brace to bed. Your belly can no longer be mistaken for extra weight. People you know and those you don’t congratulate you constantly. At home, you cry; you feel like you made a mistake. You swallow pregnancy-safe over-the-counter sleep aids. You long for dreams better than your reality. You long for a time machine. You long for stronger drugs. But, you already live for the boy growing inside you, now taking up enough space you can sometimes see his hands or feet from the other side of your translucent winter skin when you lay in bed at night. You work. You save. You make coffee at home. You only buy meat on sale. You are becoming disciplined. Still, lonely, you call your baby’s father. He’s always drunk and often with someone else. You fill your new apartment with the same old thundering screams from both ends of the phone, insults thrown from both sides like tiny darts in a dimly lit bar. You cry. You long to be seen. You should not be carrying this alone. But, you left. You knew this is what would happen.

Whether you’re ready or not, the baby will come. 

He’s born on his due date. His birth, like his conception, you cannot remember. He arrives violently, with an infection that ate your epidural in the middle of a C-section after two days of failed labor. You’re knocked unconscious with ketamine. You hallucinate through the delivery, sherbet colors, people you’ve hurt saying they forgive you. You wake up an hour and a half after he’s born, alone in a room with an oxygen mask over your face, shaking as you detox from the drugs. When it comes time to meet him, you tell your nurse you aren’t ready. You don’t realize she wasn’t giving you the choice. 

You video chat his dad from the hospital, he says that baby ain’t fucking his. When he is six weeks old, his dad tells you he’s found someone who will be a better mother than you are, and you scream and punch a wall with your son in a baby carrier, sleeping against your chest. He doesn’t wake up. He feels so safe with you, it’s your job to keep it that way. You promise this is the last time.

Six months later, his father comes to meet him for the first time. When he’s in your apartment, the shrinking begins again. Every move is scrutinized. You count down the days until he leaves. One night, while you’re sleeping, holding your son in your arms, he snatches him from you. He drags you with one hand to the kitchen outside your bedroom door, holding your cellphone in the other hand, upset about unanswered Facebook messages from your neighbor. He pins you to the linoleum floor. You hear your son start to cry from your bed. You know to shrink is to survive. Your eyes closed, you apologize and repeat, calmly, again and again: “Please, go get the baby.” The minutes feel like hours. You promise this is the last time. It is. 

Even if you don’t feel happy, you can find serenity in being alone. 

Your mom kindly suggests that maybe you could meet a nice single father to date; you know she worries you will never find a proper father figure for your son. Friends tell you to get the baby out of your bed so you can find your sexual self again. But you have everything you want. You find comfort in the rhythm of your days, lulled by the routine. You find peace in the sound of the dishwasher running at night. You are calm; you do not surf someone else’s mood swings like waves.

When your son’s laughter fills your apartment, you actually feel joy. Him in his highchair, you on a step stool in front of him, juggling clementines. He does not see any of your imperfections; he does not know any of your mistakes. You are the only thing he knows, and you are ridding yourself of toxic behaviors, wringing them from you like dirty water from a sponge, so that one day you may feel you deserve that kind of love. On weekends, you sip hot coffee and watch your son play. You make him scrambled eggs with sprouted wheat toast for breakfast. Most days, you don’t apply makeup. There have been weeks you’ve forgotten to look in the mirror at all. You keep your eyes on the next step and keep faith that he will grow up feeling secure and loved. That he will feel like each choice you made was the right one.

Lucy Jayes

Lucy Jayes has fostered a love of writing since she was old enough to hold a pen. Her work has been published in Cardinal Sins, Deep Overstock, and the Big Windows Review. She is a second-year MFA student at the University of Kentucky.

Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson

Another Successful Social Interaction

A cluster of barrel cacti dominated by their spiky spines. The image is split with a black V shape and the center of the V is in full color with the sides remaining in black and white.

you enter the scene and nobody gives a shit. you don’t make a big show, but you do make a little one—clear your throat as you walk in, raise your eyebrows and your hands, try to say, “Hey, what’s up? I’m here!” but the first word barely comes out, and when it does your voice cracks so it’s mostly a whisper that sounds like, “heAYyywha…”

the door’s open to everybody, but you brought an invite anyway. you grab it from your pocket and pull the host aside to show them. they barely even look at it but they’re like, “Dude, where did you even get an invite anyway? Door’s open to everybody,” so then you say something fucking stupid like, “yeah, i know, i just thought it would be funny to make one because i’m fucking stupid,” and that’s a pretty big buzz kill even though you said it like it was a joke—because it was—but your sense of humor is all Big Sad and Big Weird and everyone else’s is Just Normal, so the host pats you on the shoulder and mutters something about mingling before leaving you standing alone in the middle of the room like a weirdo.

you shove the stupid paper back into your pocket and tap your foot to the ground a few times, checking its structural integrity, and decide that right here is probably as good a spot as any to pop a squat. sitting criss-cross applesauce on the bare wood floor hurts your ass, but it’s fine because life is basically always a little uncomfortable. 

some guy who’s into weird chicks spots you. you can tell he’s into weird chicks because he’s got several buttons pinned to his denim jacket and facial hair that looks the way a piece of velcro does when you accidentally drop it on the floor and then pick it up and go, “eww there’s hair on it,” and anyway, you just heard him say to the person next to him that he’s into weird chicks before immediately turning his attention on you.

he stands stupid close with his knees near your eyeballs, hands you a drink, then looks down at you and says, “We’re sitting indian style, huh?” so you take the drink and look back up at him and say, “no, we’re not,” because we are not doing anything and you are very clearly sitting criss-cross applesauce, so then the two of you just look at each other for too long. way too long. so long that you have time to wonder if he thinks you’re as a strange as everyone else does or if bitchy women get him off; then you’re imagining that he’s imagining falling in love with you, and you’re getting grossed out by the way you’re imagining him imagining your life, and your marriage, and your old wrinkled hand cupping his sagging balls 40 years from now, and now so much time has passed since you first started this staring contest that you think you should probably just get up and leave but your ass has fallen asleep, and anyway, you were here first, so you decide to commit to the power move and not move. the situation diffuses when he spots some other weird chick doing weird chick shit and goes to see if maybe she’ll let him smell her armpits. 

you pull the handmade invite from your pocket and try not to look at your name scrawled across the front like it even has any business being there in the first place. you fold it into a little origami canoe because that’s the only origami you ever learned how to make, then you flip it upside down and wear it like a hat. the host catches your eye from across the room, probably wondering why you’re sitting on the floor in the middle of the party wearing a paper hat, so you tip it gingerly in their direction before moving your eyes to literally anything else. sipping from your solo cup, you think: in another life, that boat could have been folded up itsy-bitsy-teeny-tiny into an even smaller version of itself and been placed right inside that cup; it could float on that liquid and ride your next sip into the cavern of your mouth, crashing against the great and gnarled rocks of your teeth before dropping down the waterfall of your esophagus and into the vat of toxic acid at the bottom to be digested and dissolved. but today, it’s a hat.

Sara Watkins

Sara Watkins (she/her) is an editor, author, UCTD-haver, and editor-in-chief of Spoonie Press (, which is devoted to publishing work by chronically ill, disabled, and neurodivergent creators. She is the winner of the 2022 MASKS Literary Magazine Story Award. Recent publications include work in Wordgathering, Unlikely Stories Mark V, and Bitchin’ Kitsch. Contact: or @saranadebooks on Twitter and Instagram.

Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson

Small Town Trap

A cluster of barrel cacti dominated by their spiky spines. The image is split with a black V shape and the center of the V is in full color with the sides remaining in black and white.

I’m sorry I panicked when I saw you,
rolling down my window,
pinwheeling you into traffic miles from your hive.

You must have snuck into my car
during last night’s storm, unable 
to find your way out.

Bees have a homing instinct.
I hope you’ll manage the journey
back to your queen.

Along the way, will you stop
at foreign flowers and arrive
with your legs laden with souvenirs?

I hope your friends appreciate how hard it is
to be pushed out before
you’re ready, forced to fly.

At least one of us belongs to a species
that doesn’t count ending up back home
as failure.

Matthew Pritt

Matthew Pritt writes mostly Appalachian fiction and poetry. His poems have appeared in Star*Line, Not Deer Magazine, and Bear Creek Gazette. He lives in West Virginia with five cats. You can see pictures of them on his Twitter @MatthewTPritt.

Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson


A cluster of barrel cacti dominated by their spiky spines. The image is split with a black V shape and the center of the V is in full color with the sides remaining in black and white.

I like confessing things that aren’t completely true. Like the other day, a friend of mine asked where I’d been the last few months. I said, “You’ll never believe it but…” He waited for me to finish, and what I meant to say was, “Mason and I aren’t together anymore,” which was true, but halfway through, I chose this instead: “…Mason met another guy.” 

My buddy groaned. “Shit, really?”

Yeah, really. Mason met another guy. 

But the truth was I’d met one first.

When I saw Mason, weeks after we broke up, he was arm in arm with a man I’d seen a few times—okay, a thousand—at the grocery store, the gym, the park with his little dog, everywhere. Our town was hardly more than a few hundred people and a pizza parlor, so it was hard not to see him if you tied your curtains back.

Honestly, it didn’t feel great when I saw them spending a day together, but I couldn’t let them know that. So we smiled and said, “How are you?” and of all the things to lie about, I thought, that’s the biggest of them all, smiling when a tiny piece of you is dying inside.

“Man,” my friend said, “weren’t you guys engaged?”

Kind of—Mason and I bought each other ring pops at a movie theater and drunkenly posted, “Engaged!!!!!!” with six exclamation points and it was easier to click “like” on every phony comment than to let the world in on our joke. 

“That’s what makes it so hard.”

My buddy sighed. “He tell you why or anything?”

I thought about what I’d told Mason. “He just said—sometimes you find someone else who fits you better.”


“It doesn’t mean they always will. It’s just about where you are right now.”


“I know,” I said.

When I’d said these words to Mason, he cried. I’d never heard him cry before. We’d been together for two years, left Philly to find some place smaller, slower, where we could “lay down our roots” as if we couldn’t find a crack in the city streets to grow together. We drove an hour out and started looking, had our things packed into the back of his father’s pickup, found a one-road-town where the storefronts needed paint and unloaded our shit on the front step of a duplex that faced the main drag and called it “home.” 

For months, we shared our little two-bedroom half-house, unbothered by the things we hadn’t known till then—like how the sink miraculously clogged each time he shaved or the way he slurped his soup when it was just the two of us—among smaller things we pretended not to see, like the unmatched socks he left on his bureau for so long he must have known any hope of reuniting the pairs was gone, dead, finito, and I wondered how anyone got along—I mean, to the point they could actually live together—unless they closed one eye and covered one ear and pinched a goddamned nostril shut because the sad, lonely truth of it all was no one needs to be seen completely, and to this day I wonder what kind of tears I’d have gotten if I told him this instead.

“Well,” said my buddy, clearly having done enough consoling for one night, “you need anything, you let me know.”

“Of course,” I said. And alone on my couch, I thought of the man I’d left Mason for. The one I’d seen at the bar, when I drove the hour back to Philly. He was on his second Manhattan, so I asked, “A Manhattan in Philly?” not knowing if this was funny. It wasn’t.

“Hey—” I leaned in toward him. “You think I’d like the total you?”

“The what?” he asked.

“If we moved in together. And I had to step over your smelly clothes and listen to you laugh at inane comedies and watch you bite your nails when you’ve got nothing to even stress about—you think I’d like you then?”

The man shrugged coolly. “I don’t do any of that.”

“Tell me then. What do you do?”

He considered it a moment, squinting at the row of TVs. “Sometimes I drive with one knee.”

“You mean if the traffic’s slow?”

He shook his head. “On the highway.”

“That would literally fucking kill me.”

The man searched my eyes, so I shut one.

“What about you?”

I shrugged.

“Come on. Name one thing that would drive me nuts.”

I didn’t know where to begin. So I started in as good a place as any: “When I get to know somebody, I run.” 

“Is that it?”

“Or when someone gets to know me. I’m running from a man right now. He doesn’t even know it. But when I tell him, he’ll wonder who the hell I am. And for a moment, I’ll love him again. I’ll love him when he thinks about the signs he missed. I’ll love him when he wonders if we knew each other. I’ll love him when he passes our old house and—for the very first time—sees how the windows slope north, how the red brick fades by the roof.”

Matt Barrett

Matt Barrett holds an MFA in Fiction from UNC-Greensboro, and his stories and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Sun, Best Microfiction 2022, SmokeLong Quarterly, River Teeth, The Minnesota Review, Pithead Chapel, The Forge, Contrary, and Wigleaf, among others. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and their two sons and teaches creative writing at his undergraduate alma mater, Gettysburg College.

Header photography and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson

A Zoo Marriage

A cluster of barrel cacti dominated by their spiky spines. The image is split with a black V shape and the center of the V is in full color with the sides remaining in black and white.

I don’t mind the gawkers, but my ex-wife Sheryl hated the attention. She’d say the type of person who comes to the zoo is the same type of person who slows down to rubberneck a car wreck. Whenever I reminded her that was the whole point, that we were supposed to entertain and educate guests about the ins and outs of a loving, married human couple, she’d always retort: “I don’t remember agreeing to love anyone.”

She was right. She hadn’t.

I was sentenced here for selling an ounce of weed. For a while, the exhibit was called The Life of a Pious Bachelor. I’d spend all day raising and donating fake money to real churches. I guess the courts figure if we imitate who they want us to be for long enough, we’ll keep on imitating this made-up person forever.

Sheryl showed up around a year ago, and they renamed the exhibit The Idyllic Life of Married Americans. For authenticity, the zookeepers forced us to tie the knot for real. Each guided tour was the same. We’d begin in the kitchen, Sheryl cooking breakfast while I read a months-old newspaper. We’d exchanged pre-written lines like: “How did I get so lucky?” We’d finish eating, and Sheryl would kiss my cheek goodbye. I’d go to the dummy office attached to our pseudo-studio-set home and pretend to answer calls and check emails. Sheryl would pretend to vacuum and wash dishes. We’d end in bed talking about our days like stars from some cheesy 1980s sitcom.

Last Saturday, we got divorced.

The day started normally. I’d gotten up late; I tend to oversleep. I have nothing to wake up for, no one waiting for me at the zoo’s gate. I’ve never done anything worthwhile to miss. Sheryl had a life to get back to, had friends who’d sneak her snacks and trinkets. When I slid the half-Windsor to my Adam’s apple, she was already in her dress. She glanced at the clock next to the cots behind our mock house and mumbled something. I didn’t blame her for being pissed. If we weren’t ready by the time the zookeepers arrived, they’d threaten to tack on years.

I finished threading my arms through my state-issued blazer just as the zookeepers appeared behind the plexiglass. They all look the same. Same gray polo with the zoo’s logo, a giraffe with the scales of justice pinched between its teeth. Same short crew cut. Same cattle prod dangling at their waists.

One of the zookeepers shoved a box into the compartment they used to deliver our meals. I retrieved the box and opened it. Inside was one of those dolls whose eyes close when you tilt it downward. “Congratulations,” another zookeeper said. “You’ve just had a baby.”

On the stove, speakers emitted the sound of sizzling bacon. Sheryl cracked a fake egg and dripped the counterfeit protein into a skillet. I flipped to the Sports Section. Across the table, our plastic child sat in a highchair. Savory smells blasted through the air vents to make our guests’ mouths water for their own slice of marital bliss.

“Breakfast is almost ready,” Sheryl said. “I hope you’re hungry.”

Field-tripping students pawed at the plexiglass. Their teachers hovered like vultures. A zookeeper spouted fabricated details about how Sheryl and I met: high school sweethearts who waited until marriage.

“I’m starved, dear.”

Sheryl carried over our plates. I folded the newspaper. As we mimed eating, a zookeeper informed the crowd about how through hard work I’d been promoted to assistant manager, about how Sheryl took pride in her home.

“Well, dig in…”

Sheryl turned away. At first, I thought she was glaring at the kid up front who was giving us the finger. Then I noticed she was looking behind the little punks at a man packed into a navy suit. The man smiled at Sheryl like he knew her. He was leaning against the back wall, one hand relaxed on his hip, the other holding the arm of a stuffed animal version of our next-door neighbor, Milo the Mountain Lion.

Sheryl touched her arm. A zookeeper banged on the plexiglass, and she jerked her hand away like she hadn’t realized what she was doing.

“I refuse to be your stuffed animal anymore,” Sheryl said.

“Stick to the approved material,” a zookeeper piped into the exhibit.

Sheryl grabbed my plate and displayed the fake calories. She lifted our son out of his highchair and popped off one of his arms, revealing his hollow insides. Then she pointed at me like I was standing in a police lineup.

“I don’t know him, and he doesn’t know me,” Sheryl said.

Two zookeepers stormed the back entrance. Lightning jumped from their cattle prods. Kids screamed. Sheryl darted back and forth as the zookeepers attempted to herd her into a corner. She was right. I didn’t know her, at least not how two people in love are supposed to know each other. I pushed one of the zookeepers to the ground. The other went to zap Sheryl, but I stepped in front of the cattle prod, sending ants crawling through my veins.

Sheryl shrank and shrank until she was just a black dot.

They’ve renamed the exhibit The Life of the Regretful Divorcee. I now spend all day crying and apologizing for being a bad husband. I don’t know what happened to Sheryl, if she escaped, if she got to stop pretending. I do know the zoo is getting an elephant today. Apparently, this elephant killed a group of poachers. They’d sedated her and were sawing off her ivory when she woke up and gored them all to death.

Will Musgrove

Will Musgrove is a writer and journalist from Northwest Iowa. He received an MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in TIMBER, Cleaver Magazine, Oyez Review, Tampa Review, Vestal Review, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Will_Musgrove.

Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson