Category Archives: Winter 2015

Tree Houses and Vomit-Covered Walls

We sat on the second story of the tree house. Our feet dangled over the edge as our cigarettes lit off the only light for miles. The time slipped away from us as we took as much in as possible.  A thrill, one of which didn’t come often, for me nearly ever, was staring us right in the face. If we were to get caught, our parents would never look at us the same again, but that wasn’t a worry, we would cover our tracks. I looked at my new friends, took a long hit of my cigarette, and smiled. Tonight was the night. I was nervous, and you could see it throughout my entire body. My hands shook, my lips pursed, and my laughs were uncontrollable. Someone passed me the bottle, and I drank for what would be the first and the last time.

I was different back then, almost like two opposite people shoved into one body, both fighting to be seen. I was the shy girl who went along with my conservative friends, laughed at what I knew they thought was funny, and talked about the topics that they would want to talk about. I got nearly straight A’s, listened well to my parents, and never got in trouble or even dared copy a homework assignment. Though, at the same time, I longed for adventure. I found myself looking more at the kids with lives and bad reputations than my own friends. I wanted more and more to talk to the people in my class that I knew rebelled rather than the kids that got good grades. I was the girl who needed a change, needed to break the rules to feel something, needed to drink. So, naturally, when the opportunity arose, I took it.

I sat next to a girl in English my eighth grade year. Zohreh. She was the type of girl who knew what she wanted to look like, knew who she was, and knew how to get what she wanted. I envied her. I wanted her outlook on life; to not care about what other people thought of me, to be confident. One day, as our teacher droned on and on about dependent and independent clauses, she leaned over and asked me to meet up with her and her friends later. It was never made clear to me if she could sense my second personality, or if she just thought it would be fun to bring me along for the night. Either way, I didn’t care. That night I went without even a second of hesitation.

There were five of us who met up, all of which I knew on a first name basis, none of which are really important, except Zohreh. They led me to a tree house, or more appropriately a house made around a tree. A tree house, to my knowledge, was elevated on some sort of stable, thick branches and had ladders you climbed to gain access, maybe a little door, and no legroom. This specific tree house was the complete opposite. It had two floors and was made mainly sitting on the ground. There was a big heavy door with a padlock and a bench all around the base of the first room. Mounted on the wall, a TV and an Xbox gaming system blared out some kind of confusing sounds, and posters covered the rest of the wood. I did not understand how someone had the time to build this, or why someone’s parents had supplied the money. The answers to these questions didn’t matter, because it was already built, and here is where we would drink.

Two boys came barging through the door in triumph. They had successfully, for the hundredth time it seemed, stolen alcohol from the local convenient store. Hearing this news, the fort became overwhelmed with cheers and high fives, and all the sudden I could barely breathe. At first, it was like a shock bolted through me and I was momentarily paralyzed. It was almost like I had touched an outlet, but the buzzing didn’t disappear, it stayed in a way that was unfamiliar to me. This tingling inside of me was adrenaline. I was excited and afraid, the two best feelings you can ever combine.

I’m not sure how much I drank that night, being that we all shared everything, but I’m sure it was a lot. Zohreh was experienced in this field, you could tell in the way she drank. As I poured my Coconut Parrot Bay into my two liter of Sprite to make it tolerable, she drank it straight and let it burn. We started with four fifths, I quit after two, but Zohreh, she wanted to challenge the guys. At the time it was all hoots and hollers, laughs and nods, but it became a death wish. With tears in her eyes, she finished the fourth bottle. There was no clear winner, we were all too drunk to really care and we were out of alcohol. Hours passed as we sat and laughed the night away. I’m not sure who mentioned the time first, but it became evident that we needed to pack up before the cops got called.

I’m sure we intended on gracefully entering the house and saving Zohreh’s parents the trouble of seeing us drunk, but needless to say, that didn’t happen. Someone tripped over a rug and let out a yelp while another opened the door making a loud, prolonged, squeaking sound. When we finally made it down to the basement it seemed like we were safe, like all was well. After talking for a while, Zohreh made it apparent that it was her bedtime by rolling over and passing out. The rest of us went to finish our pack of cigarettes on the back patio. About an hour later, our packs fully smoked, we decided sleep was a good idea. We headed back down the steps and stumbled upon something we will never be able to un-see.

Zohreh lied across the tile floor, shaking uncontrollably. It was as if all the heat in her body had suddenly vanished. Puke ran down her cheek as her eyes focused in and out on the ceiling. Her hair, normally a light shade of auburn, was now shades of green, white, and yellow with vomit, crusting to the floor. The room reeked so much of puke it brought tears to our eyes. Looking around, it was a crime scene, with puke in place of blood. The rest of us stared at each other, startled and ashamed. We had left her, and if she died, it was on us. Looking back on it, sober, we should have done something, anything. We should have rushed her to the hospital or at least cleaned her up. Instead, we did nothing. In that moment, we were helpless, we were awful, and we were drunk.

~Aubrie Smith

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Filed under Nonfiction Winter 2015, Winter 2015

Carjacking in Foreign Films

Who wants to wait one extra minute? That’s why I am a poet

I want to breathe in so much beauty I can only waste and blow it

A page full of words that may as well been written in crayon

I’m forced to borrow to hide how shallow I am

I relate to Belmondo as he plays Michel

That stealing cars staves off consuming hell

Everything looks better in the rear-view mirror

The frailty is tethered, the past becomes clearer

I write designs to rebuild my impoverished perspective

I write inside Truffaut’s dialogue that eludes detectives

I want to know who designed Death’s costume in The Seventh Seal

Without looking at the credits. I only seek to peel back why Neal

Dying from exhaustion on the tracks is mythical

My grief in line for the value-menu, grief in the drive-thru is elliptical

All my friends with Fine Arts degrees are pretty snazzy dressers

Out of work and canvases they don’t know why I get arrested

Impatient no time for psychic hygiene only instant genius

Put my imagination in the microwave when I’m dreamless

Daydream in synchronicity with my ex-girlfriend

Word worn, heavy head causes skin to turn red

Everyone gravitates to a camera so they can express it directly

But in my universe words are the best way of connecting

The rubber meets the road, the juices flow in my head

I got the Beat soul, they got the girls in their bed

My ex hated the way I inhaled from a cigarette

Took a drag and sucked in my lung with a second breath

Hold a roll-your-own deep in the corner of my lips

Let the tobacco fall out and get soggy with spit

That flash of contempt always seemed to ignite her lust

Romance from her gut the only place she could trust

My goal was to play out parts from black and white screens

To get all my beliefs to fit inside this one piece

I’m naïve, when I thought she was joking, she was fishing

Using humor to manipulate and control my position

It’s cool, I don’t want to get honest because this car is stolen

Waitin’ for man, 26 in my hand and I know that he’s holdin’

I know a lot of shit that put together is irrelevant

Insignificance grips so I steal for the hell of it

And recycle lines that have an air of eloquence

Because I am only a sophomoric delinquent

Yeah, you’re good lookin’ but you’re no Anouk Aimee

I’m no Fellini but I make believe and that’s what drives me

I’m a poet in my mind when I pull to the next window

Because I synthesize my world and its cheeseburger soul

~Benjamin Champagne

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Filed under Poetry Winter 2015, Winter 2015

A Glorified Thief

I am as black

and nimble

as a cat

whose fur is made

of the middle of the night.

I studied under Ellison

in the art of invisibility,

under Holmes

in the art of deduction,

under Joyce and Wilde

in the art of art—portraits

specifically, and under

Obi-wan in the art of

light saber swinging,

(believe me, I can make

that oversized glow stick dance),

and under Iago in the

art of breeding villains

who were really once

just lovers, and under

Hamlet in the art of

crazy or was it in the art of

pretending, playing

dress up, or acting that

the madness seemed

to germinate?

I am able to steal

people like the

proverbial bad boy

steals one’s kisses,

one’s innocence.

My only weapons—

sight and the

responsibility

I find in the

existence, in

the weight,

in the space,

of writing

utensils.

So when you

laugh at this

“hobby,”

remember

you are not safe

from any of my

thieving ways.

I will not hesitate

to make you one

of my characters.

~Morgan Troxell

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Filed under Poetry Winter 2015, Winter 2015

In the Lecture Hall

Free radicals

will destroy your DNA

and oxygen from

the atmosphere

will feed the process

but

Please, focus on this

there are poetics

pumping from the

pulmonary valve to the

edge of your fingertips, but

these ideas do not

supply gas money

until week’s end

or a reason to the landlord

but only food for

insight into why your hands

are stained in ink

a free radical

will destroy your DNA

in other words,

you are a poet

and your DNA is

the low-income life

styled by genetics;

a free radical

destroying yourself

for an art that

is to be dead

and you are dying and

buried in the ground

and a poet

because you breathe oxygen

A living text that

speaks to the

young optimist

with like DNA

But, please, focus

because you are learning

the ways of a dead living

~Hayley Durham

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Filed under Poetry Winter 2015, Winter 2015

The Spangled Pearl White Shoes

Every day, we have to make dozens of choices. Some choices, such as what to wear and what movie to watch, are simple to make. Have you ever faced the situation that you have no right to choose? If so, would you be willing to accept or deny choices other people made for you? Some of you may never regret, but some will.

Whenever I go to a shoe store and see many varieties of shoes, I always want to look for the pair that I never had the chance to own when I was a child in Taiwan. It was a pair of spangled pearl white shoes with a pink bow, which I miss deeply. Until this day, even though I often spend much time in children’s shoe stores finding the shoes for my girls, I still cannot find the exact same pair. Decades have gone by, and I am no longer a little girl. I studied hard and graduated from a prominent university with a decent degree in my country. Although I live a happy life now, married to a nice man who is an executive in a machinery company and can buy as many pairs of shoes as I want, I know that pair of spangled pearl white shoes with the pink bow that I miss deeply will never come back to my life. That pair of shoes remains an unforgettable memory from my childhood because it symbolized my resentment of growing up poor.

In my country, Taiwan, every public school student wears almost the same uniform: girls wear white shirts on top with knee-length blue pleated skirts, and boys also wear the white shirts but with short blue pants. We all need to wear the black shoes as part of the uniform; this is the policy everyone has to follow. During the beginning of each new semester, parents are busy preparing the children’s school supplies. For example, my parents would take my brother Huendun and me to shop for some new clothing for the new school year. However, we did not buy things each time because it depended on the condition of my old clothing. If the clothes were torn or ripped with a big hole and were not wearable, my parents would take us to buy new ones. If my parents said we needed new clothes, my brother and I would cheer for many days because we usually did not have new clothes to wear.

My parents were both working in an eyeglass frame factory. Their jobs were to assemble each part of frames to make eyeglasses, and their jobs did not earn them a lot of money to raise a family. I remember at the end of each month, our money was always tight. We often ate rice with only soy sauce and nothing else. We knew we may not have enough money for that month. When the new semester came, I often felt my parents would worry if they would have the extra money to buy our school supplies.

When I was in the fourth grade, I had a pair of black shoes that were really worn out and were becoming small for me, even if I tried to bend my toes. I had been wearing this old pair of shoes since I was in the second grade. My parents would always buy shoes that were a couple sizes too big for my brother and me, so we could wear them longer. Therefore, most of the shoes I wore back then were much bigger than my feet at that time. Because of the loosely fit oversized shoes, embarrassment happened to me so many times from having to go back and pick up my shoes when I ran too fast; it drew a lot of laughter from other students. Finally, I told my parents I really needed a new pair of shoes although I thought they would refuse. One night after dinner, my mom was washing dishes. The sound of water flowing down from the faucet almost made my voice inaudible. I raised my voice and said to my mom, “Ni ker yi mai yi shuang xin xie gei wo ma? Jio der na shuang chuan bu xia ler.” (Could you buy me a new pair of shoes? The old ones cannot fit me anymore.) I showed my old pair of shoes to her, but she continued to wash the dishes. I asked myself, “What if she didn’t hear me?” I was nervous that I did not speak loud enough.

My mom did not answer; the water continued to flow. She may not buy me a pair this year, I thought. Just when I was ready to turn around and go back to my room, I heard her say, ”Hau, wo men zhao shi jian qu xie dian.” (Fine, we will find time to go to the shoe store.) I could not believe what I heard—she finally agreed. But she told me to wait for next month when they had enough money, and she would take me to buy a new pair of shoes.

I counted day after day, and finally the big day arrived! My parents told me they would take me to the shoe store in the afternoon. I could not wait for a second; I was full of joy and cheer because I had been to the only shoe store in our small town so many times to search for my new shoes on my own. The pair in the display behind the window looked so beautiful. Whenever I went home from school, I would always detour to the shoe store to see that pair. They were beautiful pearl white shoes without too much design, and they looked neat and trim. They drew my attention immediately when I saw them the very first time, because this pair of shoes was similar to the one that my neighborhood girl had. She lived in a big house on the top of a hill with a tall fence. Nobody knew her name or what the house looked like inside. All we knew that she was a wealthy businessman’s daughter, probably the same age as me. However, I had never talked or played with her, and neither had my playmates living on the same street.
One time I saw the neighbor girl shopping at the shoe store with her mother. She was wearing a pink, puffy princess dress with this pair of white shoes. The way she dressed looked like a girl from a movie that was so elegant and unreachable. I liked what she wore. I always wished I could be born in her family and wear new clothes every day; then, I would look like her.

This pair of white shoes were the shoes she wore. This was the pair I had dreamed of for a long time, and I was really determined to get them.

When my parents brought me to the store, I went in first and told the clerk that I wanted him to bring me that pair of white shoes. He brought them to me, and when I wore the shoes, I felt I looked as elegant as the rich neighborhood girl. I thought my parents would like them, too. But my parents brought me a black pair of shoes instead and said, “Ba na shuang bai xie tuo diao, chuan zher shuang hei xie. Wo men bu huei mai na shuang bai xie.” (Take off the white ones and wear these black ones. We are not going to buy that pair of white shoes.)

“Wo wei sher mer bu ker yi mai na shuang bai xie?” (Why can I not get this white pair of shoes?) I said it out loud with all my courage. I knew my parents would ignore what I said. “Ni bu ren wei zher shuang bai xie bi jiao shi her wo ma?” (Don’t you think this pair fits me better?) But my parents said I needed to wear black shoes to school, not white shoes, and they could not afford to buy both pairs. I hated that I was born in this blue-collar family and could not have anything I wanted.

“Wo zhi xi huan zher shuang bai xie, ni men jin tian ruo bu mai gei wo, wo jio dai zai zher li zhi dao ni mai gei wo.” (I only like that white pair. If you do not buy that pair today, I will stay here until you buy it for me.) I could not believe how those daring words came out from my mouth. My parents did not say a word. They turned around and went home. I felt so embarrassed standing there. I reluctantly took off the shoes and my eyes filled with tears, and I thought, “Why can I not get that white pair of shoes? Why are my parents so cruel to me? Why was I born in this family? Why can I not be like the girl who lived in that big house? She probably has many pairs of shoes to choose from each day.” I cried on the way home. I did not care how other people looked at me. All I wanted was that pair of white shoes.

When I went home, I threw myself into the bed and cried sadly until I fell into a deep sleep. When I woke up, it was dark outside and my pillow was wet with my tears. I knew I must have cried for a long time. I went downstairs to see if my parents were generous enough to buy me that pair of white shoes. However, the reality was not what I had hoped for. They did not buy me the white pair of shoes that I wanted. Instead, I saw the dull black pair of shoes lying on the table.

I still remember that silent, emotionless despair. That was what I got for fourth grade. From that day on, I knew there was no fairy tale. Not everything will happen according to our wishes. Since then, I had learned not to expect things that are beyond my control or capabilities. I do not blame my parents for not buying me that pair of shoes; I do not resent that there was no fairy tale, either. I know with all the efforts that I make, right now I am the person who can make my own choices and make a better life.

~Meiling I

This essay earned third place in the annual student contest for the Liberal Arts Network for Development (LAND). LAND provides a network for the development of the liberal arts in Michigan’s community colleges.

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Filed under Nonfiction Winter 2015, Winter 2015

A Lesson on Privilege

We squeezed down the tight aisle with our oversized carry-ons and handbags. We walked further and further, weaving in and out of the other passengers until we finally reached seats 27B and 27C.  I was eleven years old, and it was my first time on an airplane. I felt like I was lost on the first day of school.

I sat only one seat away from the window, and my mom sat just across the aisle. We got comfortable in our seats, and I stared at the clock, counting down the minutes. Fifteen minutes until departure, next stop Disney World. As I waited impatiently, I hoped the seat next to me would remain empty so I could get a perfect view out the window. Seconds later, I saw a tall man walking down the aisle towards us, looking for his seat. He was an older, olive-skinned man, with a long, curly beard and glasses. He was skinny and dressed in a dark blue button-up shirt, light brown pants, and a hat of rich silk and bright colors.

I was bummed when I saw him smile and heard him say, “I believe this is seat 27A.”

“Sure is,” I said as I got up to let him in. I glanced over at my mother and saw her muscles tense. The grin on her face turned from happy to uncomfortable. As the man settled in his seat, she stared at him bitterly, and stood up straight.

“I need you to trade seats with me right now,” she said.

Confused, I told her no. “I want to be by the window,” I said. “What’s wrong?”

“Don’t argue. You can have the window seat on the way back home. Just get in my seat,” she said as she pointed to her aisle seat next to a young white woman listening to her iPod.

“I don’t understand why I can’t just sit here,” I pestered. “Come on Mom, calm down.”

Then, she became visibly angry. “You’re going to sit there,” she said pointing. “If you don’t want to sit there, we can get off the plane.”

I sat in disbelief, and still didn’t understand why she was being so disrespectful.

Minutes later, she took me to the back of the airplane near the bathroom. “That man looked dangerous,” she explained. “I took your seat to keep you safe.”

She wasn’t making sense. What made him dangerous? His beard? His glasses? The hat? He looked friendly, but I accepted her answer and her seat next to the apparently “safe” white woman.

At eleven years old, I was oblivious to the racism displayed in front of me. For a majority of my life, I had been unaware that this happens too often, even in our post-Civil Rights world that is filled with citizens of various races and cultures.

While living in the culturally diverse city of Saginaw, I was taught at a young age to lock the car doors when driving by any “colored” person and to hold my money a little tighter when standing near them in a store line. My mother and I kept our distance from the black groups at the shopping mall because they were “dangerous.” It was as if anything that wasn’t white wasn’t clean. They were tainted, like a rusty penny on the ground that isn’t worth spending. The darkness of their skin was an irreversible flaw that sentenced them to a life of ridicule.

As doors are held open and locked behind me for my protection, I understand what it means to be privileged in America because of my race. It means that this land is my ensured opportunity, and with a little hard work, I am guaranteed success. There are jobs that I reject because they might make my skin dirty, jobs that I save in my back pocket, and jobs that I work because I can afford the degree. As I stand neck deep in opportunity, I understand what White Privilege means. The benefit of the doubt is my birthright, and I am treated with respect. I have all of these privileges that I did not earn, but rather was born with.

I have never had to fight for rights or for equality. I have never had to watch for cops out of the corner of my eye, and I am able to hide behind my skin if I am a suspect. I have never been guilty until proven innocent. I am able to walk through airport security without harassment, as others need to have their privacy invaded just to set foot on a plane. I can’t say I’ve been in their shoes, but I do realize that this injustice exists. I realize that it is immoral, and I realize that it needs to end.

It is those who have the privilege that deny its existence. As a child, I was taught in school that we asked the Native Americans to leave nicely, that slavery ended along with racism and that we are all equal now. We are often blindfolded with the excuses. It’s not our fault; it’s theirs. If we were there, it would have been different. It wasn’t us; it was them. We are polite; they need to keep their distance. We’re not racist; we promise. We’re not racist; we’re patriotic. We’re not racist; you just look like a terrorist. We’re not racist; we’re protecting our children. We’re not racist; we believe in freedom.

We need to believe in freedom for those who don’t look like us, too, by doing more than accepting our privilege and ignoring those without it. It doesn’t have to be this way; we can all be privileged Americans, no need for color categorization. We can all be born with a right to freedom and equality. We can erase the terms “White Privileged American,” “African American,” “Asian American,” “Arabic American,” and simply be Americans.

~Tiffany Sember

This essay earned an honorable mention in Delta’s local competition for the Liberal Arts Network for Development (LAND). LAND provides a network for the development of the liberal arts in Michigan’s community colleges.

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Filed under Nonfiction Winter 2015, Winter 2015

A List of To-Not-Dos.

I haven’t drunk coffee

since you left

or slept with a crooked pillow.

I haven’t been to IHOP at three in the morning

or counted all the Iron Man comics at an antique store.

I no longer spend any time

contemplating this shade of black

over that one

and I’ve stopped believing anyone’s hair

could be spun from gold.

I can’t look at the number 7

without seeing the other three digits

of your old apartment

and I don’t care to tread softly through the snow.

I’ve figured out that the only thing

that separates one moment from another

is whatever division we make inside our heads

and that, now,

the only thing that separates you from me

is that I don’t want you,

I don’t want any of this

anymore,

and I haven’t

since I stopped doing it.

~Kayla Grose

This poem earned an honorable mention in Delta’s local competition for the Liberal Arts Network for Development (LAND). LAND provides a network for the development of the liberal arts in Michigan’s community colleges.

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Filed under Poetry Winter 2015, Winter 2015

Thousand Empty Windows

The weary warehouse

gripping the corner of

Ring and Wheeler

has a thousand empty windows

tonight

stars above that I followed

parade the sky in jest,

good-natured elves—they favor these

tired bricks, chipped and dusted with labor;

its windows coated in thick fog

reflect faces of ghost-men,

men who gave better portions

of days to unforgiving metal,

patting the foundation with torn boots,

their laces tied tight in a knot

like their belts below their stomachs

but, a neighbor’s cat passes my heels

while an overcast night

blows the playful notion of the stars away

I too forget the men’s faces,

only impressions left in dust

and head home to get sleep

that I lack

from a long day’s work

~Hayley Durham

This poem earned first place in Delta’s local competition for the Liberal Arts Network for Development (LAND). LAND provides a network for the development of the liberal arts in Michigan’s community colleges.

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Filed under Poetry Winter 2015, Winter 2015

Vintage

Whitney liked to arrive early. Sit in the parking lot and get herself together. She had an unusually large vanity mirror, with lights on her visor. A major selling point. Applying eyeliner, she could ponder the contradictions of her girlfriends.

She could think of things even she didn’t agree with. And this is a hard thing to do. She poked her lips out, considering balm. She thought past that, then stopped at a name. Whitney could not always divide herself. Her girlfriends would approve, but her mother wouldn’t. Or vice versa. Or nobody would approve and certainly never her father. And getting herself to approve on top of it would prove harder still. So she didn’t tell anyone she was meeting Kelly to go thrifting.

She continued fussing with her hair, alternating between innocent eyes and vixen, devouring smiles, as she does in parking lots. Brief practice for the conversation ahead. A bearded man knocked on her passenger window mid careless-sex-pose. She collapsed the visor elegantly and gathered her things into her purse. Never looking up, never feeling startled. High on herself. She opened the door, took one step and spread her arms out. Kelly swept around the car and hugged her.

“I cannot believe you’re wearing that nasty beard.”

He rubbed it into her neck and she fell out of his arms like liquid.

“Straight granola these days,” Kelly said. He stepped back and put his hands in his pockets. He looked her up and down, asked her if she was getting better looking.

She dug through her purse and found her cell phone, put it on silent in a covert act. She wasn’t trying to blow anyone off specifically. She just thought it better not to be distracted. Kelly hadn’t seen her in a while. She hadn’t thought of him in a while. They broke up over a year ago. She knew the break-up was coming and so her life didn’t halt one bit. It may have sped up.

“So what do you want to show me?” Whitney perked up as the sun sank in her skin.

He told her she would find out once inside. They walked in and neither had to fight any nostalgic urges. Kelly was too rambunctious to hold hands while shopping. Everything stimulated him. This is what attracted Whitney to him. Though in practice she found it was too much. She had to scold him. She had to be a bitch. And worse yet, she liked doing it. She found her own angry face to be sexy and thought he must as well. Still, she felt guilty deriving pleasure in such incidents. This sort of conundrum would invoke itself on the two in everything they did.

The old ladies working the register were talking intensely about recipes or grandsons or blacks or discounts or medicine or republicans or vacations or Christmas or crocheting or work or church. They were not talking about true love. Whitney and Kelly slipped in unnoticed. Kelly went into the corner and pulled a fedora from a rack. There were feather boas and winter hats; a Playskool telephone was wedged onto the end. Kelly handed it to Whitney and said, “It’s for you.”

He told her that was it. The reason he had her come out.

“Really, come on. You know I’m bad at waiting,” and she rocked her shoulders a little. Mostly she could wait. She liked to make sure that Kelly still wanted to satisfy her. Whitney was a smart girl. She could rely on herself for trivial demands. She finished school.

Kelly laughed at her. She realized she overdid it with the Monroe-esque line. She laughed at herself and threw a feather boa around her neck. He peeled the fedora off and put a plaid cabbie hat on. They walked down the aisle with all the busted electronics. Kelly liked to scour for obscure VHS tapes. He collected a few. Whitney always thought they were junk, but she stole one from him. A copy of This Old House. Bob Vila inside Frida Kahlo’s. After her divorce. It was strange, but Kelly never asked for it back.

“Doesn’t Saul wear these hats?” Kelly asked. She knew it would come up sometime. Kelly didn’t bother with tact.

“Sure. He wears whatever he wants. I don’t keep track,” she said. But she did. She kept track. And she liked the hat with a particular set of dark glasses. And she didn’t mind it on Kelly either.

“Is that really what’s going on? I mean, I know it is. It’s our little quarterly check-up. I tell you about me and the artist. You tell me about some drunken hook-ups.” There, she thought, this is what we both wanted. His lack of articulating what they were both thinking is why she left him.

Kelly lifted his hands in arrest position. “Okay,” he said. “I don’t have any drinking stories. I’ve mostly been by myself. All my drinking is E. A. Poe style.” He thought this would intrigue her. She always said he was a weepy-philosophical drunk. It was one of those attract-repel things. Not now. Whitney saw in hindsight pure repellent raven.

“Oh my god. Are you still doing that shit? There, Saul would never do that. You think you’re classic, but you’re just corny. ‘Corny Kelly is crying because T.V. is ruining the world’,” she mocked. “Yeah, we get it. Jersey Shore is what’s wrong with America. But I got shit to do.”

Kelly smiled inside. It pierced Whitney, just a little, to pretend those things were so frivolous. But really, who had the time? She started thumbing through men’s shirts. Kelly knew she was looking for specific paisley patterns. They could’ve written dictionaries to each other’s daydreams.

“Are you still making scarves?” Kelly asked. They used to take weekly trips to thrift stores together. They would usually stop for the ‘bag for a buck’ deals. Whitney made scarves. The frayed old-western types that musicians wear. Along with vintage dresses and boots she would sell online. You get a variety of patterns cheaply at the thrift store, Whitney would say. It was an excuse. She always loved revitalization. Finding the brilliant flairs amid all the worn out. Sewing memories together for ‘hand-me-down happiness.’ The smell. Garage and attic. Hiding. Sharing that smell.

“Yeah, but ever since I started at the co-op I don’t have time. I mostly just make them as gifts now.” Co-op made Kelly’s stomach turn a little. Picturing all these artists rubbing elbows with each other. Pretending they have their lives together. For the instant they are together, knowing that they do have their lives together. Kelly was looking for t-shirts with wolves on them. Preferably in tie-dye. Whitney held up a shirt with gold piping and white and red paisley on brown. “Perfect,” he said.

“All right, I’m going to walk behind you and cover your eyes. I don’t want you to peek. You are really going to like this,” Kelly said. He got behind her and resisted the urge to nuzzle his big beard into her back, grab her by the waist and hump her. He was unsure if it was typical male or a fog from the oxytocin released in his brain upon sight of her. He walked her down the aisle without any sexual advances.

“Now keep your eyes closed until I say.” He leapt in front and said Ta-Da.

He leaned back, reclining on an orange corduroy sectional couch, circa 1970 whatever. She smiled brightly and it faded into a giggle. Whitney walked over and sat next to Kelly. Only three parts were in an orderly fashion.

“What do you think?”

She really didn’t know what to say. She had always wanted a vintage couch. None she had ever seen to that point fit her exact description of ‘vintage-couch’ like this one. Kelly was beaming. Proud of his discovery. She thought it was cute, but she knew the mess ‘cute’ could make. She thought about asking the price, but that implied wanting it.

“Oh my god, Kelly, too much. How did you find this? I suppose you expect me to fuck you now?” she laughed and laid back.

“You always said, vintage couches and shag carpet made you horny.” Kelly didn’t really honor that statement. He straightened up and told her upon finding the couch he thought of her. He sighed.

“It’s too late. I think I’m moving in with Saul. I don’t have room for it anyway,” Whitney sat back up.

“You’ve always wanted one. Suddenly you don’t?” He threw his leg over a fray in the upholstery.

“I don’t know. I don’t have the room. I can’t just rebuild all my décor around one piece of furniture. I don’t think Saul will even like it. He’ll think it’s tacky or ugly. He thinks the retro is there to serve the new. Not to be applauded,” and she cast her gaze at her feet. “Are you ever going to grow out of that stuff, evolve?” She looked at him.

“Whoa, whoa. Don’t think the couch thing is some metaphor. I mean, yeah, I can’t turn down public sex on a corduroy couch, but… This isn’t some effort to win you back. I just thought you wanted to see a great couch. I thought you would appreciate it,” Kelly demonstrated sincerity. She could tell he meant what he said. She always had a problem with his lack of concealing. She could see right into him. He was transparent except for a little core, like the seed of an apple that reflected Whitney right back. “Besides, I might consider not fucking you in this thrift store. Old Jenny would get pissed,” Kelly said and fingered a macramé hemp bracelet.

Whitney reeled a little. She had never suspected that the little core was capable of reflecting back whatever gazed upon it. Whoever. That his core could reflect back another. She stiffened up and gathered all the sex from the vanity mirror of her car. Composed she said, “Oh yeah? I bet I could seduce you.” And he didn’t respond. They were both rubbing their hands over the fabric of the couch until Whitney noticed. She reached into her purse absent minded. Her hand touched her cell phone. She pulled it out. One missed call. Two missed texts. Saul had texted that he saw her car at the thrift store but couldn’t stop. The second noted that she hadn’t told him she was going out that day.

“Excuse me,” she said and texted back to Saul. She said she was with Taylor grabbing shirts to make scarves. Then she texted Taylor to cement her story. She turned a little from Kelly so he couldn’t see her typing. “I’m going to grab a few more shirts,” she said.

The two walked out together into the purifying sun. It made them realize how truly dark it had been. The fresh air turned their bloodstream into southern California. Traffic and people and birds and garbage and carbon monoxide and vibrant colors and advertisements and train whistles and puddles and chocolate and that fucking-not-attic-air reminded them that it’s good to go to the thrift store, if only to leave.

They hugged near Kelly’s beat-up car. He stole a kiss at her cheek. She spotted a big tangle of hemp looking stuff in the back seat. “What’s that?”
“Jenny made it,” Kelly said. “It’s a hammock.”

“Hmmm…,” she wrinkled her nose. She thought Kelly’s car was a mess and all that rope wasn’t helping. She walked back to her car and closed the door. The solitude and the pent-up heat overcame her. She pulled the visor down and mussed her hair. Pursed her lips. When she started her car, she realized she never even asked the price of the couch. She wanted to know the cost.

~Benjamin Champagne

This short story earned first place in the annual student contest for the Liberal Arts Network for Development (LAND). LAND provides a network for the development of the liberal arts in Michigan’s community colleges.

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Filed under Fiction Winter 2015, Winter 2015

The Call of the Void

It was just a tiny pinprick, a little black dot, smaller even than the tip of a well-sharpened pencil. “Black as a vulture’s claw,” the doctor had told his patient, shoulders hunched and eyes squinted, staring at the computer screen. “Right over the left ventricle. A curious thing, that is. And you say you can feel it?”

“It pulsates,” his patient answered. “Not like my heartbeat… but like its own. Intermittently. And… it’s strong. Like when someone plays a bass drum and you can feel it all the way through your chest.”

“Is it painful?” the doctor asked.

“No,” the patient said, but added, quietly, after a grim pause, “Not yet.”

The doctor hmmed, focus constantly shifting from the file folders in his hand to the ultrasound of his patient’s heart on the screen to his immediate left. Finally his eyes remained glued to the files, taking a more careful consideration of what was written there.

“Have you experienced any changes in your health recently? Other than the pulsations, of course. Any other symptoms you can think of? Has anything happened recently that might’ve caused you some stress?”

The patient paused. “I killed a man last week.”

The doctor, too, paused, shoulders drawn taut, muscles caught mid-motion from setting the files down. Clearing his throat and gathering his bearings, he turned his eyes to his patient, who began kicking slipper-clad feet restlessly where they dangled from the examination chair.

“I beg your pardon?”

This time, the patient did not hesitate, though his voice was laced with anxiety. “I killed a man last week. He was—I don’t know what he was. But I killed him—I had to—and now this. Now I have this. Have since the moment his heart stopped beating. And I know because I waited—I waited for it to stop beating.”

The doctor was visibly trying to gather his bearings, to sort through the words his patient so desperately spilled, in two entirely different manners: to understand the gravity of the situation, and to understand what the situation was.

Adjusting the gray-framed glasses hooked on his nose, the doctor cleared his throat once more. “So—so you say you… killed a man? And this pulsation, this beat coinciding your own heartbeat, occurred immediately afterwards?” Though forcibly imbuing a sort of curious question to his tone, the nervous tremor underlying his words could not be helped.

“Yes,” the patient said, grasping on to the doctor’s temporary understanding. “Yes, that’s exactly it.”

“And you… believe these two events are related?”

“You must understand, doctor—this was not any ordinary man. I can’t even be sure he was a man.”

The doctor was caught between hearing his patient’s words and the new image that greeted him on the ultrasound monitor.

“Oh my,” he murmured, stepping closer to the screen.

“What—what is it?” the patient demanded.

“The spot. Before, it was a mere pinprick. Now, I think—I think maybe it’s more of a speck? As if it’s gone from the size of a needle tip to the size of a freckle.”

The patient moaned in fear. “It’s grown?”

“It appears that way.”

Having been presented with a more pressing matter than week-old murder—the life of a patient directly in front of him—the doctor’s thoughts were more easily assembled. The anxiety and hesitation he’d portrayed not a minute before had faded into a sharp sort of curiosity and a desperate need for answers.

“You said—you said he was no ordinary man?” the doctor questioned, unwinding the stethoscope from where it had been draped over his shoulders and approaching the patient to listen to his heart.

The patient nodded quickly. “He could do things. Things I’ve seen no other man do. I think he could read my mind, too. He knew what I was going to do before I even did it. I only managed to disable him by pure whim—he couldn’t anticipate what I, myself, didn’t know I would do.” Swallowing loudly, the patient looked to the floor. “I didn’t mean to kill him.”

The doctor continued pressing the stethoscope around the patient’s chest, listening intently, attention divided between the strange-double beat within the patient and the words pouring without the patient. “And what other things could he do?”

“I don’t think I know all of them. He moved fast—I could only really see him if I blinked rapidly, the way you can see the individual prongs on a fan if you stare at it and blink. It was disorienting. And he could move things. Without touching them.”

“Telekinesis?” the doctor murmured in wonder. Was he beginning to believe his patient? That, last week, there had been a man on this earth that was not a man?

“But you must believe me,” his patient pleaded, eyes—a stark blue, the color of the morning sky in mid-winter—searching the doctor’s own, as if the patient could see his very own fate in the man examining him.

The doctor stiffened, hand paused over the patient’s pectoral muscle, where the cold bite of the stethoscope pressed against the patient’s skin, directly alongside the ultrasound mechanism somewhat suctioned to the chest. “I—I didn’t—“The doctor paused, sucking a breath of air in to force the words out. “I didn’t say that out loud.”

The patient’s breath caught in his throat—the doctor knew because he could hear no rasp of air entering the lungs with the stethoscope pressed near those organs. Other thoughts seemed to flit into the patient’s mind, for in the next moment, he had the doctor’s wrist gripped, like a vice, between his hands. “You’re—“ the patient stopped and looked into the doctor’s eyes in confusion, as if he could see right into the doctor’s head. “You’re thinking of calling the police. Or the FBI. You’re not sure yet.” The patient’s grip on the doctor tightened infinitesimally. “But you can’t. You can’t.”

Just then, the patient’s eyes were drawn by something over the doctor’s back, which he quickly realized would be the ultrasound monitor. The doctor swiveled on his feet and examined the monitor, adjusting the glasses on his nose as if what he was seeing was merely a product of glare from the lens.

“It’s—it’s growing again!” the patient exclaimed, clutching at his chest. “And I can feel it. I can—what’s happening to me?”

The doctor stood frozen, half between the patient and the monitor, unsure of which to go to. The patient caught his eyes again, reading the doctor’s expression once more as if reading a mind. And the doctor realized, with a sudden jolt of disbelief at himself, that the patient was reading his mind.

He could feel it. It was like a skimmer over a pool’s surface, a feather duster over a cherry-wood bookshelf, a fly landing on a lake, a raven’s wing brushing a maple leaf—just barely there, just enough to sense something.

The patient spoke, edging closer towards hysteria: “You think I’m becoming him, becoming like him—the man I killed. You think I—you think there’s something wrong with me, really wrong with me, and I—“but he broke off and clutched his chest once more, sputtering a gasp. “Am I dying?”

The patient stood, now, and by glancing once more at the monitor, the doctor watched as the dark void, the shadow over his patient’s heart, began to grow exponentially. One moment, the patient was standing over the examination chair, and the next he was across the room with his hands pressed to his head, the veins protruding in his arms, as if by sheer force he could push whatever was occurring in his head right back out.

“I can’t—I can’t even—“and the patient was across the room again, again, and again, never staying in one spot longer than a second.

The doctor blinked, fluttering his eyes opened and closed so rapidly he couldn’t be rid of the shadow of his eyelashes even when his eyes were completely open. He staggered back against the countertop, checking the machine once more for the shadow’s progress over the heart, but, of course, the chords had been ripped from the patient, the device used to create the ultrasound image lay at the foot of the examination chair, discarded.

“I can’t—I need you to stop thinking so loud,” the patient was saying, darting here and there. “I just—I need—quiet!”

The hysteria in the room was escalating, gathering as if for some great climax. The doctor, without even a thought, grabbed a scalpel from the cabinet’s drawer behind him, wielding it like some grand sword rather than a thing with a five-inch handle and a one-inch blade, the most basic instinct of self-protection eclipsing much of the reason in his mind.

“You must calm yourself,” the doctor was saying, watching with pale lips and wide eyes as the patient began thrashing things. The examination chair had been ripped from its metal base; a dent was cut deep into a cabinet. A nurse could be heard knocking outside the door, asking in a rather high-pitched voice if someone should call the authorities, and then presumably running to do just that.

The doctor was given no chance to react, for the next instant brought the patient to a stop just before him, hands still pressed firmly to his head, face awash in tears, eyes painting a clear picture of agony.

“I need quiet,” the patient said again, though the quiet only registered briefly with the doctor, for words that had been uttered a mere minute or two ago now seemed like a lifetime in this madness.

And just as the patient lunged towards the doctor, the doctor’s hand—the very one wielding the diamond-tipped scalpel—was reaching towards the patient, hand set in a placating motion despite the obvious weapon held within its grip, and time slowed once more as the doctor watched the tip of the scalpel breach the soft neck of the patient, watched as the blade sunk right in, up through three inches of the handle, even, and as blood flowed, first like the beginnings of a newborn waterfall, and then in an angry current, spilling out over the patient’s hospital robes like paint, thick but slippery.

Slowly, the agony in the patient’s eyes softened to a lesser sort of pain, and his eyes once more rested on the doctor’s. The skim through the doctor’s mind halted as the patient dropped to his knees.

The doctor followed him there, folding his own legs beneath himself almost painfully. His hands reached for his patient’s throat, assessing the damage, trying desperately to hold the skin together so no more blood could slip past, but the reasonable quadrant in his brain told him it was already too late for that.

He, too, crumpled when the patient fell back to the floor. Blood looked almost black in its density as it surrounded the doctor on the floor, and the stethoscope that still hung from the doctor’s neck, like a noose, was pressed hesitantly against the patient’s now-softly moving chest.

The doctor listened for the heartbeat from the life he so hastily took, the thathud, thathud, swimming through his ears, until all at once, it stopped.

And started up again right in his own chest.

~Kayla Grose

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Filed under Fiction Winter 2015, Winter 2015