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:

“Bitch.”

“Loser.”

“Scaredy-cat.”

“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

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. 

“Really?” 

“Yeah.” 

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

What No One Tells You

A fallen, yellow leaf lays on a rock, ice melting around it. The photo appears in black and white with a V-shaped center section in bright, water-colors.

Your body grows and grows. You somehow get the foreign thing out, the thing that is yours and also, where did it come from?

There’s no way to know until it’s too late.

They tell you it’s hard. They say you don’t know until it happens to you. I’m telling you because no one else will. The truth is that they need need need need need. It’s relentlessness, the need. I wasn’t prepared.

They say it will change your life. What they mean is you will never be the same. Fucking hell. They don’t tell you the whole truth. And why would they? They’re drowning. They’re sad all the time. They’re nothing, they’re ghosts.

Do you remember the person you were? Being responsible for only your own body, your own breath? One night stands, sweating lovers, slipping away in the night?

I see a ledge, steep rocks on a cliff and dizziness looking down. I wonder about slipping. How would it feel, free? Like love rushing up to meet me?

I am here to tell you that when I wake up I die, and I put on a perfect mother mask, and I fetch breakfast and socks and backpacks, and cheery-eyed I send them to school. Need need need need need. I wake up and die and I make lunch, run the vacuum, click out a grocery order, zombie-drive to the lot, find a spot, park between lines, and wait for someone to bring it out. Thanks so much. Do you have any paper coupons? I have slips of paper but they don’t save me anything. Paper can’t save me now.

What no one tells you is that you’ll dream about death like a lover, dream of the escape, of the nothingness, the quiet mouth of an empty grave. How peaceful to feel the dirt shoveled on. Oh praise! Oh, warm heavy earth blanket! How wholesome to think of worms and maggots and fungi singing through your flesh.

I wake up and die and remember it’s trash day recycling day picture day field trip day farmers’ market day birthday Saturday. Need need need need need. I wake up and die knowing need is constant and collapsing us all into two dimensions, need is dragging me down to the dirt and putting her mouth on my mouth.

If anyone told me, would I have understood?


Jessica Bates

Jessica Bates lives in middle Tennessee, and lately she enjoys studying abolition and witchery. She’s a 7-year member of The Paper State Writing Club, and she’s working to open a magical brick and mortar children’s bookstore in Nolensville with one of her best friends. Find her on IG @_jessicabates and Twitter @seejesswrite.

Header photograph by Deborah Hughes
Header artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson