Ragamuffins

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

You move into the neighborhood and now all we hear are clown horns and foot slaps. Go-karts race down Yale Avenue, hit chuckholes and spit you up against concrete curbs. Just when we think we have you all counted, you multiply. Ragamuffins, Dad calls you. We think that’s your last name until our oldest brother, Eddie, yells out—Hey Ragamuffins!—from his GTO, and now you glare at him with cap-gun eyes.

You come over to play with us. We can’t help but stare at the scabs you have for kneecaps, your scarecrow hair. You are our fascination and you know it. 

Where’s the creek? you ask, and you lead us there even though this is supposed to be our neighborhood. We are not allowed to go as far as Darby Creek without permission, but you herd us—the seven or nine or more of you—your soiled limbs waving in the August sun. 

Darby Creek is a letdown. Can’t even float a stick in it! you scream, and then you are a pack of soldiers—you smear mud on your faces and whoop war cries across the water. Your troop plans its attack on ours. Get the Charlies! You crest the bank and splash through the creek, sticks raised like swords.

We stand frozen on the grass and observe you as if we’re watching the NBC nightly news broadcast from Vietnam. Eddie’s scared of Vietnam. You don’t know about his low lottery number; how Dad looked like a sponge cake when the draft man on TV pulled number 26 from the plastic capsule. You don’t see us sitting around the dinner table every night watching soldiers in the thick jungle, choppers landing on dirt pads. You don’t hear how we can barely breathe as our nightmare unfolds halfway across the world on the tiny screen of our tea cart television. You don’t notice our camouflaged tears. Instead, you point sticks at our heads.

Fight! Coward! You bang your chests as if there are centipedes trapped inside of your ratty tees. 

We want to protest, but we know it won’t matter. You crave bloodshed. You skip over lumpy rocks in Darby Creek, bodies of the dead and missing. You approach; we feel the warmth roll down our legs. Your crooked teeth grin wide as you trip us, grind pinkies into our Good-Humor-truck bellies. We watch as our choker beads spill into the clover. We pray for Darby Creek to grow angry, leap the bank, wash you back to where you came from, though we have better things to pray for in 1972, and then the dinner bell rings and you surrender your weapons. 

We retreat to the kitchen table. NBC’s cameras fly over mangroves and rice patties; we want to tell Eddie we survived the war of the Ragamuffins, but men are face down in the waterlogged field and somehow that seems more important. Mom spies the creek mud underneath our fingernails, and we are sent to the bathroom sink to scrub and scrub. 

Back at the kitchen table, Eddie’s gone and no one’s talking. The newscaster flatly lists Vietnam’s daily count—37 dead, 81 missing—almost as if he’s reporting sports scores. Dad reaches over, switches off the TV. Finish your dinner, Mom commands, and we don’t dare mention the hunk of steak and full mountain of mashed potatoes still on Eddie’s plate. We slide green beans into our mouths, but they are cold, slimy water moccasins. 

Outside, wheels rumble and scrape across pavement. We imagine sparks flinging down Yale Avenue, your helmetless heads free and loose, hands and feet stretched outside your go-karts, tongues flapping. We chew cold steak while listening to your wild shouts and laughter, the roar of your escape.


Michele Finn Johnson

Michele Finn Johnson’s short fiction collection, Development Times Vary, was the winner of the 2021 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award and is forthcoming in 2022. Her work has appeared in A Public Space, Colorado Review, Mid-American Review, DIAGRAM, SmokeLong Quarterly, and elsewhere. Her work was selected for the 2019 Best Small Fictions anthology, won an AWP Intro Journals Award in nonfiction, and has been nominated several times for a Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Best Microfiction. Michele lives in Tucson and serves as contributing editor at Split Lip Magazine.

Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson

Not My Father

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

The lights are out in the cabin where the boys and I sleep, but I’m not there. I’m awake in the backseat of a truck with a sleeping Mason whose face is smushed against the window.

“No favorites,” my boss commanded us during orientation, but Mason crafts ketchup art on his dinner plate, writes his own murder-mystery book series, and likes Schitt’s Creek as much as I do. 

The driver flies down the two-lane road. I swallow a shout whenever a deer appears by the shoulder, not wanting to wake Mason without cause. I tell myself that if we hit a deer, he’ll wake up anyway. I remember the story my dad told me, how he totaled his Jeep before I was born.

“The deer came out of nowhere, and I couldn’t turn fast enough. I tried.”

At the hospital, a man asks the woman behind the desk to let him in the back to see a patient. “It was my fault,” he says. “I need to tell him.” She sends him away. Our turn.

“My stomach hurts,” Mason tells her. He tells her that it hurts less than it did an hour or so before. Our driver, an actual adult with copies of Mason’s insurance and a credit card, explains that the doctor at camp thought it might be appendicitis. I am the twenty-year-old counselor who was told to go with his camper to the hospital. I stand behind them both, useless.

In the waiting area, I’m on my phone. Mason asks if I’m texting my girlfriend. I laugh and don’t answer him, too embarrassed to tell a middle schooler that I’ve never even been on a date. Not counting prom when I took my sister’s friend. Mom was fussing with my tux while Dad instructed me, “Be sure to give her all your attention tonight. It’s her only prom.”

We get called into an exam room. A woman in scrubs sits at a desk littered with empty yogurt containers and blank forms. She asks Mason questions. “It doesn’t really hurt anymore,” Mason says. The driver huffs and rolls his eyes. The nurse says we should still run a test to be safe. Mason pees in a cup. Back to the waiting room. 

At the vending machine, Mason makes fun of how many snacks I buy. I get him a Musketeers Bar, one of my dad’s favorites. We avoid the driver, he’s kind of weird. I look up “Would You Rather…” questions on my phone.

“Would you rather be in jail for five years or a coma for a decade?”

“Coma, definitely.”

“But you lose ten years of your life!”

Mason shrugs.

They call us back to a different room. There’s a bed for Mason and one chair. The driver is kind enough to sit on the floor. It’s three in the morning. “We need a blood sample,” the nurse says and Mason starts to shake. He’s never given blood. I put my hand on his shoulder as the needle slips into his skin. 

I remember when my dad drove me to the hospital to have blood work done.

“You don’t have to look at the needle. You can if you want, but you don’t have to.” We stopped at Hardee’s for biscuits after. 

The nurse pulls the needle out of Mason’s arm. His body calms. More waiting. 

A doctor enters. They need a CT scan. If he has appendicitis, he will need surgery. Mason’s never had surgery. He lies back on his hospital bed and starts to shake again. 

I pull out my phone and tell him he can watch Netflix. He takes it and sees my lock screen. A man is sitting on a couch wearing an LSU baseball cap, wrapping paper at his side, but the gift is out of frame. The man is grinning. 

“Who is that?” Mason asks.

I don’t know how to tell him it’s a picture of my father. My father who I am named after. My father who drove me to swim meets and bought me ice cream whether I won or lost, who taught me to drive, who watched Seinfeld with me, who came to all my school plays and pretended to like even the bad ones, who said “I love you” every morning before school. My forty-six-year-old father who was in good health when he lay down on an operating table and bled out within an hour only a year ago. 

I know I can’t tell Mason that. There is no reason to tell Mason that. The doctor will wake us up around six the next morning to say that the CT shows it is indeed appendicitis and that the surgery has to be today, and Mason will go in for the operation and come out just fine.

Mason’s parents will come down for his three-day recovery before he returns to camp. I’ll shake his father’s hand and tell him that his son is my favorite in the cabin. Mason will return to camp and see his friends and go swimming and walk on the beach and play basketball and read with a flashlight and leave camp and go back to school and grow up and go to college and get married and have children and see them grow up and he won’t die before they have a chance to say goodbye.

Mason is not my father. Mason is different because Mason is just like everyone else.

I stare at the screen, unable to return my father’s smile. “It’s my dad,” I say.

Mason nods. He turns on Schitt’s Creek, and without looking at me, tilts the phone so I can watch too.


Ray Lantrip

Ray Lantrip is a student at Covenant College working toward his degree in English. He writes creative nonfiction, poetry, and drama. When he’s not wasting time on his phone, Ray enjoys performing on stage, going for runs, and trying out different energy drinks.

Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson

Fire

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

You covered yourself in kerosine. Grabbed a box of matches. Took one out. Even as a child I saw through the act, knew it wasn’t a real threat, just an immature cry for attention. Another way to breed fear in all of us. One more way to get our mother to look at you and not us, to pick you over us. Beg for your life over her own no matter how many times you’d tried to take it. That night included. She got on her knees in front of you and I had the urge to take the match from your hand, light it and let it ignite against your skin. Even if it killed us all. So long as my mother’s suffering would stop. So long as she was off her knees, and you were the one screaming in pain for once, begging for your life for once. So long as the fire allowed my mother to feel the warmth she never got from your touch.


Jasimine Griffin

Jasmine Griffin is an emerging black queer author. Jasmine currently serves as the Adult Program Manager at the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati. Jasmine was recently published in Eunoia Review, Genre: Urban Arts, and Cleaning up Glitter. She received her MA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. In 2022, Jasmine was selected as a Voodoonauts fellow. In 2020 she participated in AWP’s Writer to Writer Mentorship program as a mentee of Maisy Card, debut author of These Ghosts Are Family and was also a Pitch Wars mentee paired with YA author Aiden Thomas who’s best known for, Cemetery Boys.

Header photography 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:

“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