Category: Fiction (Page 1 of 3)

The Greater Good

By: Liz Warren Pederson

Nathalie called me— called me!— to discuss her deathwatch project. She said the technology is there but the market for hardware is iffy at best, especially coming from a startup. She said there was no point launching from the inventor’s country of origin because socialists lack ambition. She said the inventor had only come to her because his full-time employer didn’t think the IP was aligned with its core values. The plan is to use a crowdfunding platform for market validation and to attract first-round investment. She said a courier would bring me a prototype so I could test it. Then she sighed. “Jay. Manufacturing will be like passing a stone.” That she called at all just goes to show how “compelling” she thinks this is for the American market. It was only the third or fourth time we’d actually spoken in the year I’d worked for her.

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Book Review: Geoff Nicholson’s “The Miranda”

By: D.M. Olsen

Some might consider Joe Johnson’s situation a crisis. He just quit his job as a torture expert for a covert government agency called the Team. Joe also just divorced his wife and moved into a remote home three hours north of London, where he intends to walk the circumference of the earth from the privacy of his backyard. He plans to walk a small, circular path twenty-five miles a day for one thousand days. However, as Joe quickly finds out, and as the compelling narrative unfolds, privacy is the last thing afforded by Joe’s new house. He is surrounded by nosy neighbors, a philosophical mailman, and a band of skinheads who invoke a turf war with the veteran torture artist. And, of course, Miranda.

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TCR Talks with Tyler Dilts

By: Felicity Landa

Tyler Dilts spent his childhood investigating police work, hoping to one day follow in his father’s footsteps. Instead, he found himself to be much more interested in writing about crime than pursuing a career solving it and has since become the author of five books on crime fiction, including the Edgar Award nominated, Come Twilight, and the forthcoming, Mercy Dogs. His chilling and sometimes terrifying novels explore the complex and haunted characters of the Long Beach homicide department and the murders they solve. Dilts’ Long Beach Homicide series has gained quite a following amongst crime fiction fans, Long Beach natives, and many others. “Someone told me to set a couple of long-term goals, for motivation,” Says Tyler Dilts. “So I set some goals that I thought would be impossible to reach,” he told me when we met in L.A. to discuss his upcoming novel. “I thought, I’m going to sell a quarter of a million books, and I’m going to get nominated for an Edgar award. And in the last year, I’ve realized those goals weren’t as unrealistic as I thought.” He laughs, “I’m still in shock that those things have happened. Having so much success as a writer still baffles me.”

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Book Review: Jessica Keener’s “Strangers in Budapest”

by John Flynn-York

Image result for strangers in budapest

In Jessica Keener’s new novel, Strangers in Budapest, the lives of two ex-pat Americans become intertwined in the titular city in the 1990s. Annie is unhappy and shiftless, at loose ends after a move to Budapest with her husband and their young son. Meanwhile, Edward, an elderly man, is in Budapest for one reason only: to find the man he thinks murdered his daughter. When they cross paths, they find common ground in this quest. Edward is a cause Annie can invest her energy into—something she’s been lacking since moving to Budapest. But when she is drawn deeper into Edward’s scheming, she begins to question whether she’s merely helping an old man or abetting his delusions.

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Winter 2017

Photo Courtesy of Fox Colton

Rachael Warecki
Fiction Holy Land

Emily Rapp
Nonfiction Conversion

Tatiana Forero Puerta
Poetry Denny’s Grand Slam Special

James Croal Jackson
Poetry | Mid-December

Kathy Rucker
Drama Beautiful Scar

Anne Falkowski
Nonfiction | Robbie

Douglas Wood
Fiction The Barn

Barbara Westwood Diehl
Poetry | Red Princes

John Patrick Bray
Drama | Fix

Christina Cha
Nonfiction Raped and Murdered

Gillian Lee
Poetry How to Become a Poet

Jeremy John Parker
Fiction | At the Speed of Light

Tamra Plotnick
Nonfiction | Barbie and Gandhi Sitting in a Tree

Janet Reed
Poetry | Blue Exhaust

Jodi Adamson
Poetry | Six-Word Stories

Rachel Joseph
Drama | And This Before Leaving

Renee Winter
Nonfiction | And Away She Goes

Jay Shearer
Fiction | Little Resurrection Machines

Marie-Andree Auclair
Poetry | Mummy

Anne Babson
Poetry | Regina

Kelly Shire
Nonfiction | The Great Unknown

Megan Stielstra
Interview | TCR Talks with Megan Stielstra

The Coachella Review is a literary arts journal published by the University of California, Riverside–Palm Desert Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing & Writing for the Performing Arts.


The Barn

By: Douglas Wood

When they pack up her house, a photograph will fall from the pages of a novel, carving arcs in the air as it drifts to the carpet. Pictured is an old falling-down barn. No one alive knows that this barn was built on the foundation of an even older falling-down barn, after it too fell down. No photographs, no paintings of that older structure exist, the thatched roof, the wattle and daub walls. No living soul heard the crack and the pop of the flames or remembers the charred east corner. 

On those sturdy bones, late one forgotten summer, a farmer—a fat and frugal man, fond of lager—put nails to boards and reanimated the structure that housed his small herd of dairy cows. Just in time, too. Days after the repairs were completed, the herd paraded noisily home, decked out in flower garlands with clanking, pumpkin-sized bells after months of grazing in the rolling green of Alpine meadows. 

The farmer patted a few flat haunches but let the hired hands put his girls away. He felt a chill coming on. The following week, he was looking at the ancient pine outside his bedroom window when he died, a casualty of the great influenza outbreak of 1918. 

A widower, he left the whole of the farm—house, cows, barn and all—to his oldest child, a cheerless, middle-aged daughter married for some years to the itinerant laborer hired during the barn’s reconstruction. By the time her father died, the daughter had so frequently, so forcefully proclaimed herself as the logical heir that her brothers and stepsister had already pursued other unclaimed ambitions. Her husband had been dabbling in this and that ever since their hurried wedding and six children, hoping a career would present itself before farm life took hold of him. No such luck. Thanks to his wife’s shrewd accounting skills and the rigor she demanded from him, the farm prospered and grew, their Gruyere gaining some local renown. Twenty-some years later, this farmer, who never wanted to be a farmer, was still farming. To his dismay, he was also co-owner of a barn whose roof desperately needed fixing. 

At his wife’s prodding, the farmer—having lost his willpower as well as his waistline—repaired the barn one board, one wooden shingle, one grudging nail at a time, with a thought to running out the clock of his life. But he lived longer than he intended, and despite himself, the work was completed. Spring came. And a whim: the reluctant farmer erected an easel in the barn. Soon, he was painting again, like he’d done in school. For long hours, he stole away when his forbidding wife was otherwise occupied to paint oil portraits of his favorite cows in various settings and configurations. A cherished brush in his hand, his cheeks ever so faintly dappled with cobalt, on a cloudless summer afternoon, his heart sputtered and stopped. He fell with a heavy thud in dust that billowed gold in the beams of light. 

For the following year or two, the newly minted widow leaned on her eldest son. Unfortunately, he had inherited his father’s ambivalence toward the place and was determined to escape the grip of rural life. At the first opportunity, he joined the military with all the other able-bodied and not-so-able-bodied young and not-so-young men. He was given a uniform and sent east in the fighting. Weekly, his mother wrote him breathless letters detailing the triumphs of the farm, the rich profits from milk, cheese, cream, and so on. Later, with no less glee, her letters concerned whose house the British had bombed in the nearby village and how much she thought to buy it for. 

The war ended and the gray-eyed soldier folded his uniform into a trunk in his childhood bedroom. The farm he had returned to was not merely operational, but larger than the one he’d left. His mother’s stony resolve had grown, as well; she would have him succeed her. Like his father, he did not contradict her. Instead, he used his strong back to swing open the barn’s complaining door, and with a length of rope, he hung himself by the neck from a sturdy beam. A series of vague infirmities plagued the old woman after: palpitations, phantom pains, dizzy spells. A neighbor offered her a fair price, but out of spite, she sold the farm at auction for next to nothing, moving in with her much younger sister, whose feral children tormented her final days. 

The new owners, brothers and businessmen from the capital, had hoped to turn a profit by leasing out the farm. Luck was not on their side, and tenants were few. For years, the barn stood, growing too decrepit to use, too expensive to tear down. Each year, the weight of winter snow threatened to crush it once and for all. But each spring it stood. 

Boys from the village came to explore. They broke windows, smoked pot, laughed, and dreamed big. One May afternoon, employing the full measure of his charms, a shopkeeper’s assistant persuaded the pastor’s daughter to hide away with him in the stale straw of the loft. In January, he told his co-workers she was a whore, and the baby she carried meant nothing to him. The farm was sold to a Frenchman, who gave it as a wedding gift to his son. He sold it, in turn, after just three years, grateful he could pay for his daughter’s leukemia treatments in Canada. The barn sank to its knees. 

The current owner, a second cousin of the pastor’s daughter—though he had neither met her, nor heard her name—shored it up, replaced the rotted walls and roof, and expanded it. Newly married with an elegant bride, he was already counting his profits, prepared to shower his beloved with all the luxuries she deserved once the herd was built up. 

She never set foot in the stupid old barn—she barely spent time in the house. She preferred drives into the city to shop with her mother, or dances at discotheques with her sister’s friends, or symphonies with her Spanish lover. One day, she drove down to the city and never returned. The barn did not notice she had left. It was only a barn. 

Her farmer husband proceeded to alienate family, friends, and uncounted patrons at the local inn with the tale of her disloyalty and his hatred of all things Spanish. Nightly, for sixteen years, with one foot on the floor to stop the bedroom from spinning, the farmer drifted toward unconsciousness, certain in one thing: that if this stingy farm hadn’t betrayed him, his delicate wife would be curled up, perfumed against his side right now. 

For almost two decades, dawn has woken him like an ice pick to the temple. Still, he soldiers out to the splintery barn to tend to the cows and goats, repair rotted beams, or change the broken hinges if he must—but he refuses to paint the fucking thing. 


The young woman, a poet from America, jams the cork into the half-empty bottle of Riesling. Her dark-haired lover packs up the rest of their picnic, pitching the clinking plates into the wicker basket along with the Gruyere, and shutting the lid with such force it nearly snaps off. If she confronts him, he’ll deny it, so she allows him another of his Teutonic moods. It will pass. 

All she said was this: if he doesn’t want the answer, he shouldn’t ask. But he asked. Of course, he did. That’s his way. So, she told him that her answer hadn’t changed. Now, he’s making her pay for it with huffs and martyred sighs. That’s his way, too. 

They walk side by side down the dappled lane toward the room they share. She takes his damp hand in hers. It feels boneless. Her eyes remain fixed on the ruts below their feet. Their conjoined shadows glide over the clods. His name is Paschal. She has never known another Paschal, not in all of her twenty-three years. His love will be the birth or death of her, she is sure—isn’t that what love is? 

A scalp-pinching strand of hair is hung up under the strap of her bag. With both hands, she releases it and gathers her loose frizz into something less painful but still presentable. 

Disengaged, Paschal takes the opportunity to plunge his liberated hand into his pants pocket. He takes the lead. His shoulder blades poke through his t-shirt like twin hatchets. She’s convinced she outweighs him but is afraid to ask. Together, separate, they turn and continue up the weedy path they’d walked together a hundred times. A bird complains. Burrs catch on the hem of her skirt. She wore a skirt today instead of jeans. For him. 

They pass a field with cows frozen in their poses. The old dairy farm. The two of them keep their gazes resolutely ahead. Weeks ago, under a night sky dizzy with stars, seated just there on a little rise, he asked for the first time. She declined. Paschal wept and she held his head in her lap, stroked the fine bones of his face. A sickle moon rose higher and higher above the barn’s roof. 

Paschal’s longer gait takes him to the turn in the path before her. She says, “Wait. I want to take a picture.” 

With a weighted sigh, he leans on the fence post and taps a cigarette out of the pack. 

She drops her bag in the weeds and retrieves her new camera, the old-fashioned kind with a long lens, a graduation present. She clicks: a single shot of the barn with silvery boards as it peeks from behind the little grove of fruit trees. A day moon floats just above, chalky looking, faint in the sunlight. Beyond, a field yellowing for lack of rain. Behind it all, the mountain peaks are hidden, implied. 

Delighted, suddenly his sunnier self, Paschal bursts into laughter and asks in English if she’s some kind of fucking tourist now. He snags her free hand and pulls her close. Her heart pounds like it’s trying to break free from the confines of her chest. Any second he will tease her about it, she’s certain, some joke about this outsized hammering. But he does not. His lips press into hers in a tender kiss that lasts almost forever. 

If he asks her at this moment, she will say yes. 

But he does not ask. Without a thought beyond each other, they thread their hands, duck under a fence, and cut across a field toward a copse of skinny trees, bare like shins below their swaying canopies. Behind: the barn, the rise, the little grove. 

After Paschal’s epic flame-out, after psycho Greg, after she cheated on Tony with his brother Joe, after Filipe with those shoulders, after steady Russ and the marathon that is their shared life with three children and zero chapbooks, after retirement from a thankless job, her ailing parents, the increasing silences—after all this life, she still feels a pang when she comes upon a certain kind of barn in a certain fading light. 

When she and her husband redecorate, she moves the excruciating photo from the shoebox and tucks it inside a paperback that Russ would never read. She will not open the book again, but glances from time to time at that high shelf, reassured by the solidity of the cracked spine. 

Across the world, the old barn stands still, a home for rats, cats, and owls, recently a gelding. Occasionally, it stores a truck needing repairs, or lumber too warped to use, too good to throw away. The smells: sweet hay, wood, manure, iron, moist earth, motor oil. 

Look there. At this moment, a shaft of dusty light jabs through a hole in the roof, penetrates, and is withdrawn, quick as a magician’s blade.

Douglas Wood received his Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from University of California, Riverside, Palm Desert. His short stories and poetry have appeared inNarrative Magazine, The Rattling Wall, The Eeel, Rise Up Review, andWriters Resist among others.  

At the Speed of Light

By: Jeremy John Parker

Annie was my wife or I was hers. We’d never quite sorted that out and it had become a running joke after we married—the second couple in the state. You may have seen us on the news, standing behind the guys who won the lawsuit. Our friends called it our fifteen minutes.

The last time Annie spoke to me was two days after her thirty-eighth birthday. That morning I asked her if she would stop, please just stop, while she was tying her running shoes. “I’m going” was the last thing she said to me. Annie loved to run. As long as I’d known her, she ran. And not little jaunts around the block, not puny 5Ks for charity, but full-blown marathons. If she missed a day, she felt off, like a misfiring cylinder. It could throw her into a funk for the whole day. She’d misremember words, misplace things. She’d walk into a room, unable to remember why she was there. If I interrupted that trance, if I asked, “What are you looking for?” she’d snap, vicious. But when she ran, she was a marvel, some amazing technology unveiled, something the world had never known. It would be tempting to compare her to a deer or a gazelle or a cheetah, some animal known for its speed and prowess, but that would be unfair, almost derogatory. Maybe—maybe gazelles could postulate the theory of relativity when they ran, but I can say with certainty that Annie was a genius when she ran.

She slammed the door without another word. “I’m going.” Such prophetic words, profound in retrospect. It was early December, but the weather was almost indistinguishable from October—dead leaves and chill. The night before, there had been flurries, so insignificant they weren’t mentioned in the forecast. They had all melted in the rising sun, though some had survived, huddled in the shadows of the trees or in a perfect line against the side of the house where the sun had yet to venture. Annie jogged down our street toward Swinson Avenue as a warm-up and then, turning south, began her sprint. The wind came in from the north that morning, and she preferred to fight against it at the end of her run instead of the beginning. I never understood that.

I’d never understood anything about her running, really. She explained it to me once, the obsession—her word, not mine—the first time we met. It sounded like mystical nonsense, but I went along with it. You meet someone, you want to keep talking to them, so you find yourself nodding at stuff you’d never imagined. Annie’s facial expressions, her gestures, her speech—all high A’s and hard O’s—even her freckles and brassy hair had this exaggerated intensity, like she was always on stage, and I wanted so badly to be her audience.

As soon as Annie got up to what she called “cruising speed,” she would have started to churn over the fight we’d just had. It was one of those long, drawn-out affairs that went on longer than it should have and sucked up everything it could into a swirling maelstrom that left deep gouges in our relationship. I’m sure Annie carefully examined each word, evaluated for evasions, half-truths, plausible deniability. Like a puzzle, she’d take the piece that was my cell phone’s complete lack of text messages, and she’d put it together with my excuse that “I delete all my messages right away” and my hesitant answer to her query of “Where were you last night?” and realize it didn’t quite fit with the piece in which I said, “Nowhere” to which she replied “Nowhere? You’ll have to take me there sometime. It sounds nice. Oh wait, you can’t—it’s not really a place, is it? Because it’s fucking nowhere!”

That’s when I pleaded for her to wait, but she wouldn’t. She laced up her shoes, pulling the laces like she was garroting someone—me, I imagine—and ran out the door.

“I’m going.”

The paramedics explained that they could determine exactly how long Annie’d been lying on the ground by the drop in her body temperature. Apparently, they have a whole formula for it, something about basal metabolic rate. Based on that, she had been on the ground for about an hour when they arrived. Likely stopping for a sip of water, Annie stood at the fountain, listened to her heart boom against her sternum, and came to the only logical conclusion—that I’d been with another woman the night before.

At that moment, an arteriovenous malformation had ruptured, spilling blood into the left hemisphere of her brain. Words may have still tasted like English on her tongue, but the meanings would have become unmoored. She may have had a headache; it may have started that morning. It could have ruptured hours earlier, in her sleep. Or it may have ruptured right there by the fountain. They couldn’t be sure. She may have felt particularly irritable, unable to concentrate, short of attention. Some strokes start small and leak; others are a sudden torrent. All the paramedics knew was that the willowy guy working the day shift at the Sunoco noticed her lying on the ground across the street, her bright red Nikes flashing like a beacon. He’d called 9-1-1, then dashed to her. She was unresponsive. He checked for a pulse and failed to find one. He sat with her, this woman he thought was a corpse, and held her hand for seventeen minutes until the paramedics arrived.

The doctors explained to me that it had been a small rupture, but the extent of the damage wouldn’t be known until she regained consciousness after surgery. If she regained consciousness. She might have severe brain damage, cognitive deficiencies, amnesia. She may have to learn how to walk, to talk, to tie her shoes all over again. The amnesia was the tricky part. She may have simply lost the memories, but the stroke had been in the language center of the brain, so she could still have them, but merely lack the ability to describe them, her mind like a children’s book—all pictures, no words. The lead neurologist, Dr. Conrad, said it was like a televised football game. Try as they might, the players can’t hear the fans yelling on the other side of the TV.

I was still at home when I got the call that Annie was at St. Jude’s. I was in the middle of texting her—writing, deleting, wordsmithing—trying to find a way to arrange those magic characters in the right order because only the most perfect phrasing would conjure her back. But there was no way to write out what I wanted to say; there were no words that could convey what I needed them to mean. How could I explain my innocence in the face of the evidence? And what if the truth was more pathetic than the lie? My dad used to say that civilization went to shit once people could tell lies from a distance. He was a failed insurance salesman, so make of that what you will.

I had just set my phone down, deciding that I needed to speak to her in person, when the call came. I threw on my coat and ran for the door. “I’m coming.”

There was something about how Dr. Conrad described that disconnect between Annie’s memories and language that haunted me. I kept imagining her trapped like a ghost on the wrong side of the veil, trying desperately to communicate and cross over. I suppose that’s where the idea came from. Like a reverse exorcism, I’d help her to cross back. I’d give Annie her language back, her memories back. Because who are we without our memories? No one at all, really. A blank slate, cells on a slab, a bridge to nowhere. I would be the subtitles to Annie’s silent memories. I’d tell Annie every story she’d ever told me, so she could find herself and her way back to us.

And by us I mean her family. Annie and I didn’t have children, never adopted or anything, but her parents were still around. Not mine. My dad, the insurance guy, drank himself to death before Annie and I married. He was drinking himself to death long before I was born so it’s not exactly tragic, more a foregone conclusion. Like a story you already know the ending to before the second page. My mom was around when we got married, but she didn’t come. Her health was the excuse, but it was just as likely her religion that kept her away. Mom and Dad—Joyce and Frank—married late in life, had me late in life. They were late for everything. Frank was technically retired when I graduated from high school. I only say technically because you can’t really retire from unemployment, can you?

Annie’s parents were still with us, as they say. We never quite got along, never got comfortable with each other. And after the stroke, I had to see a lot of them. Her mother, Eileen, was an off-putting combination of mousy and saccharine. She’d wring her hands and smile incessantly, but it didn’t fit her face, as if she had ordered a cheap how-to-smile kit from a late-night infomercial. Eileen had a Ph.D. in library science and headed up the largest archive in the state. She seemed to know a little bit about everything, annoying the doctors because she didn’t quite know enough about any one thing to be helpful. Dr. Conrad would be telling us about what to expect or what rehabilitation treatment was next on the docket, and Eileen would pipe up in that authoritarian squeak of hers: “I just skimmed the most interesting article about how nimodipine can be used to counter the increased cellular calcium concentrations implicated in neuronal death. New England Journal of Medicine, I think. Is that an option for us?” Dr. Conrad explained that it was not an option for us. Something about how it was only for ischemia, which is when the cells are deprived of nutrients. Annie had the opposite; her brain cells had drowned in nutrient rich blood.

Annie’s father. His name was Steve, and he was the kind of man’s man that would shake your hand in a death grip while his glossy white chompers barked, “Steve. Name’s Steve, call me Steve.” He was a former Marine-turned-officer-turned-instructor-turned-professor with a steely crewcut so resolute you couldn’t help but imagine him coming out of the womb with that impervious hair. There were promotions and more promotions and then a teaching gig at the Naval Academy at Annapolis. He was retired now. Designed his own squirrel-proof birdhouses and whatnot in his workshop. To his credit, he did his best to treat me like a son-in-law, which—though not ideal—I considered a sort of victory.

Annie and I had decided to visit Steve and Eileen to announce our engagement. I was only half joking when I suggested that they could find out like everyone else when they received the save-the-date in the mail. I’d even argued for just the civil thing at the courthouse. Annie, me, a witness. Neither of us were religious, and we both managed to escape the fairytale princess wedding obsession. But Annie was really close with her family and wanted to do it proper. So I agreed we could announce our nuptials in person, but I put my foot down at asking her father for his permission, as amusing as she thought that would be.

Annie and Eileen had simultaneously declared their intention to go to bed when Steve looked at me with an air of taking out the garbage and said, “Come with me.” I had been afraid something like this was going to happen, and I followed as reluctantly as possible. I imagined some fatherly ritual going back to the time when daughters were sold off for a couple sheep. That I was being included in it was equal parts bewildering and preposterous. But it seemed important that I be—I don’t know—manly? And is it only manly because it’s done by men? As far as I know there’s no womanly equivalent; my mother never initiated me into womanly mysteries and my father certainly didn’t impart any deathbed wisdom. Is there a moment when mothers take their daughters aside or fathers take their future daughters-in-law aside, or whatever, and have these little one-on-ones? Mine never did.

I followed Steve to the unstained bar in his man-cave and sat down on a stool. He pulled two tumblers from under the bar and opened a crystal decanter. “Glenlivet, twenty-two years. I’ve had it since it was eighteen. Now it’s old enough to drink itself!” He poured a little into the tumblers and slid one to me. I’ve never been much of a whiskey person. I don’t know the difference between whiskey and bourbon and scotch, and I certainly didn’t know what was important about Glenlivet. From his tone, I assumed we were going for a drive in a Lamborghini. Steve held up his glass and I could see him wrestling for words. Eventually he decided on “To family.” Lifting the tumbler to my face, I took a sniff like I’d seen people do at wine tastings. That must not be a part of the whiskey ceremony, because it blazed through my sinuses and down into my throat. We chinked glasses and took sips. I mimicked his movements, drank as much as he did. The initial taste wasn’t as bad as I had anticipated; it was the strange dragon breath that came back up afterwards that made my eyes water. Letting out this extended fiery breath, I tried to drink back my own spit to cleanse my mouth, which made me gag. I hid it as well as I could.

“You’re marrying my daughter, so I guess…” I could see him wrestling for the right words, and it suddenly meant a lot to me that he thought the right words were important. “Eileen’s dad sat me down the same as this when we got engaged.” Steve took another sip and so did I. It was easier the second time. “I’m not going to give you the same speech. I don’t think I need to. Times are a bit different.” He looked uncomfortable for a moment, hesitation hidden behind his tumbler. “Obviously.”

I wanted to let him off easy, to let me off easy too, I suppose, so I held up my glass, grabbed his eye, and as cheerfully as possible said, “Obviously!” We both took long draughts which sent my head spinning, so I don’t know if it was the whiskey or embarrassment because Steve was red in the face when he set his glass down with a chuckle. He refilled our glasses, and we sat mostly in silence, and I didn’t have to hear the how-do-you-plan-to-provide-for-my-daughter speech or other intimidating questions with roots in an era when the daughter’s prosperity hinged on the prospects of her betrothed. Instead, I learned that bourbon is whiskey that is at least 51% corn and must be distilled in a charred oak barrel. Also, that scotch is just whiskey from Scotland.

Until Annie’s stroke, that was the longest conversation I’d had with the man.


I didn’t tell Annie that story, sitting there in the hospital, in those lulls between meals and blood draws and visits from her parents. She’d already heard that story; she’d heard while she was dressing and I was nursing my first whiskey hangover. She squinted and hugged herself, wiggling and smiling deep into the covers. “For him,” she said, “that’s a huge deal. You know how he is. He’s really trying.”

I had decided to tell Annie her own stories, stories she’d told me. And I didn’t want to get all schmaltzy with it either. I’d been to funerals and wakes where people only tell the good stuff about a person and leave out all the bad and it’s like poor fiction. There’s nothing more boring than an unconflicted hero or a villain who’s evil just to be evil. Your antagonist is a crap character until you can understand them as the protagonist in their own story. I didn’t want to be that for Annie, sugarcoating everything. Our strongest memories are often our worst ones, the bad ones, the shameful ones, the embarrassing ones. It’s why stories of breaking apart are more common than stories of coming together.


Eileen and Steve walked into Annie’s hospital room one afternoon while I was telling the story of her first day of school. Eileen had been telling Annie about kindergarten for over a year, about all the things she was going to learn, the new friends she’d make, all the fun games she’d play. But Annie wondered why her mom had never told her about the gardening she would be doing. When she got to school that day, after a little tear-filled good-bye to Mom, Annie couldn’t wait to see the garden. She’d built up this vision of fruit trees and corn stalks and vines that traipsed across the lawn sprouting zucchini and pumpkins. She imagined giant sunflowers smiling and singing while students laughed and pranced around with watering cans. It was part-Eden, part-Disney, and Annie couldn’t wait.

The kindergarten teacher’s name was Mrs. Sweetums, who easily lived up to her moniker. Annie said she was round like a lollipop and bedecked with rings and necklaces and bracelets and earrings made of glass beads like bowls of hard candies. To start the day, Mrs. Sweetums had each student say their name to the class and their favorite thing. Annie joked it was like an A.A. meeting for five-year-olds. “Hi, my name is Annie and I’m addicted to Play-Doh.” After every introduction, the kids would chant, distractedly and out-of-sync, “It’s very nice to meet you, so-and-so.” It took forever, and Annie missed most of the kids’ names because she was craning her head to look out the windows, to catch a glimpse of the garden. Mrs. Sweetums showed everyone where their cubbies were, where they could find art supplies, where the books were, where the bathrooms were, where to put their coats, and on and on and on, and impatient Annie’d had just about enough when Mrs. Sweetums finally said they were free to go play.

Annie sprinted for the door to the playground, flung it open, and came to a dead stop. Wood chips and a swing set. A rusted set of monkey bars. A metal slide that was surely too hot in the late August sun. She ran back inside.

“Mrs. Sweetums, Mrs. Sweetums, where’s the garden?”

“What garden, sweetie?”

Annie’s eyes brimmed as she shouted, “The garden for the kids! Kinder-garden! Kinder-garden! The garden for the kids!”

Oh, how Annie cried when Mrs. Sweetums said there was no garden, that kindergarten was just a German word that meant school for children. At dinner, on our first date, she told me that story and she teared up even then, thinking about how upset it had made her. So upset that afterward she kicked a little boy for mixing the Play-Doh colors together, and when he cried about it, she called him a baby. She yelled that babies don’t cry, with her own tears staining her cheeks, and then she kicked him again. Mrs. Sweetums pulled her away and made her sit far from the other kids, in the hollow under the stairs with the extra chairs and workbooks.

“You were so mean!” I laughed as I said it, hoping to diffuse the tension and those awkward almost-tears. “That poor boy! Did you ever forgive the Germans for fooling you?”

Annie smiled and dabbed the corners of her eyes with a napkin. “You know, I never did. In high school, I took German, so their foul language could never fool me again. And you know what? Kindergarten literally translates to children’s garden. I was right.”

“That was why you took German? Because of kindergarten?”

“You should probably take that as a warning and run.”

“That you never forget and you never forgive and you can be diabolical to the point of cruelty in your retribution?”

Annie said, “Exactly,” and I’m pretty sure that’s when I fell in love.

With Eileen and Steve in the room, I didn’t tell Annie that part of the story, our first date story. I had tears in my eyes, Annie’s tears, as I finished the kindergarden story. Eileen thought I was crying for more mundane reasons. She gave me all the empty assurances that the doctors gave, that Annie would be fine, she’d come out of the coma, that she’d come back to us. Dr. Conrad assured us that the rupture was repaired and there was nothing to do but wait. So I waited. I told Annie stories. I watched daytime TV and felt guilty.

Annie’s ultimate conclusion to the where-was-I puzzle should never have been what it was, but there was a tragic logic to it. She and I hadn’t been talking. I’d been spending increasingly more time away from the house. Which was even more conspicuous since I was unemployed. But I’d stopped looking for work, had stopped sending out CVs and cloying cover letters. Instead, I’d started writing again.

I’d rented a cheap studio space above Sylvia’s, a low-rent Cuban restaurant downtown. I thought the name prophetic, like an omen—The Bell Jar was Annie’s and my favorite book when we were teenagers. I lugged in a wobbly IKEA desk, an uncomfortable chair, and frayed tartan couch and went to work. I’d decided to write a simple love story. Have it start off bad, during a turbulent time, but ultimately, they would triumph and their love would win out, transcendent. And so I wrote and struggled and rewrote in that cramped little space that smelled like hot mustard. I ate a lot of red beans and rice with choripán, and drank a lot of cheap Cuban cerveza.

But I didn’t want to tell Annie until I had something to show her. It had been such a long hiatus—almost ten years since my first novel—so I’d not told her about it. I saw myself handing her the manuscript and she’d read it and she’d understand, and everything would be good again. But I was embarrassed, so I said nothing. And one night I wrote late and fell asleep on the couch. The springs stabbed me in the back. And then it was morning and she thought I was cheating.

I felt as guilty as if I had been.

And now I’m filled with what-ifs. What if she hadn’t gone for a run just then? What if she’d been at home? I could have gotten her to the hospital sooner. What if she wasn’t upset? Would she have noticed the warning signs, the symptoms earlier? Even if I didn’t really betray her, the effects were the same. It was truth in her mind. If you get frightened in a dream, that fight-or-flight cocktail of hormones still gets deployed.

Physiologically, it’s just as real.

Annie had told me a story once while we were lying in bed. It couldn’t have been more than a week or two into our relationship. We were still in that stage when during every intimate moment we shared our childhood stories, the really important ones, possessed by that impulse that only seems to exist at the beginning of a relationship. As if we can weave our childhoods together, link our formative moments together. Make our first kisses each other’s kisses, make that first playground rejection happen on the same playground. Not literally, but thematically. As if bonding at the age of eighteen or twenty-two or thirty-five isn’t enough, we have to rewrite everything that happened before in the context of this new relationship.

Annie believed in soul mates, but not in the usual way. Annie said that when she was really young, maybe seven or eight, she was reading a book about Greek myths when an idea struck her. She ran through the house and asked her mom where all the big heroes were, like Hercules and Perseus. Eileen said that there weren’t any big heroes like that anymore, that heroes were smaller, like policemen and firefighters.

“Why are they smaller?” little Annie asked.

“Because the world is so much bigger and there are so many more people, so we need more of them.”

Annie went back to the little nook behind the stairs where she liked to read, a Lite-Brite shining orange on her book, and thought about small heroes in a big world. If people were more powerful and fewer before, and they were smaller but more numerous now, then they must be divided. Maybe back in the past, people had whole souls and with whole souls they could make big things happen. They could venture to the Underworld or complete ten Herculean tasks. But now, with so many people, God couldn’t give every person a whole soul. So he divided them up. At first, maybe souls were just split, so it was possible you could find your other half. But later, like the food supply on a ship lost and adrift, the rations kept getting smaller and smaller. And now, people only have the tiniest sliver of a soul. And to a seven-year-old little girl, this could be a crushing thought, but my Annie, she saw the bright side of it right away. She told me, as I then told her in the hospital with sunrise light glowing pink on her slack face, that she realized we have multitudes of soul mates, all over the world, so many people we’re connected to, so many people that are us. She said that everyone who shared the same soul was on the same team. “And if we want to do big things, we need our teams.”

And in my less cynical moments, I think that’s why we tell each other everything when we first get together, why we share our history. It’s not that we’re trying to manufacture some idealized past; it’s not even that we want our intimates with to understand us as deeply as

possible. It could be as simple as Annie’s vision: that we’re really the same person, we’re absolutely as close as possible, and it’s been so long since we’ve seen each other, we want to know—we need to know—what have we been doing all this time. I finally found you, piece of me, please tell me, what has happened to us? You see, it’s not storytelling; it’s remembering. It’s anamnesis and Annie was saying, Help me, help me to remember.


And I was trying to help her remember. I told stories almost constantly, trying desperately to remember. But how many conversations do you have with your wife or your husband or your kids, how many How are you? How was your day? conversations do we just let slip away, how many do we give short shrift, just going through the motions of listening?

I began to feel a sense of urgency, that I was telling these stories to a ticking clock. Dr. Conrad’s prognoses were diminuendo of optimism. He gave updates about rerouted blood flow and synaptic activity that meant nothing to me. He spoke of options. He, Eileen, and Steve had whispered conversations in the hallway. They tried to talk to me about Annie’s living will, about the legal definitions for minimal brain function. I didn’t want to hear that story. That wasn’t going to be Annie’s story. Annie had so many more stories. I told her the story of when she got mugged walking home from the observatory in college. Of when she stole twenty dollars from Steve’s wallet and bought candy to bribe kids for her third-grade student elections. Of when Eileen caught her masturbating in the bathtub when she was twelve. Of the time some woman broke three bones in Annie’s foot with a shopping cart two days before the New Haven 50-Mile Ultramarathon. Of the time she forgot to drain the water from the macaroni before she added the cheese.

St. Jude’s was a Catholic hospital, and once per day a nun came in and read the Bible aloud, believing the words of the Lord would guide Annie, one direction or the other, back toward the living or away toward the light of Heaven. I couldn’t see how that was any different from what I was doing. I told Annie’s story. The doctors told their story. The nun told her story. Annie’s story was the only one I cared about. For all the progress I could see, the doctor’s stories were as effective as the nun’s—nonsense.

Sometimes I would go for a walk when the nun came, sometimes I would zone out. One day, the nun was reading and said something that caught my ear. I asked her what she said and she startled like she’d forgotten I was in the room. “I’m sorry?” She grinned and squinted, milky blue eyes nestled in a bed of wrinkles.

I shifted in my chair. “I’m sorry, Sister, that last thing you read, that last sentence—what was it?”

She placed her hand on the passage and I could hear the susurrus of her fingers caressing those thin biblical pages. “It’s 2nd Peter 3:12—I look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat.”

I sat back and the nun went on reading. I turned the quote over in my mind. It reminded me of what Annie had said the night I met her. We were at a reading at this feminist bookstore for the university’s annual literary festival. I don’t even remember who was reading, but the author was this tiny sprite of a poet who read in a jarring staccato while gesturing with one hand that bounced with each extended vowel, three fingers pinched like she was pointing a pencil toward God. I only listened for a few minutes before I decided to leave.

Annie was outside. I didn’t know her then, but I also didn’t know where I was going next and I stalled, putting on my jacket and checking my phone. She was with some other woman, and I eavesdropped while she talked about the marathon she was running the following weekend. I watched as she took deep drags from her Camel, the cherry growing brighter and brighter, roasting the freckles on her face.

I laughed at the irony of a marathon runner smoking. Annie immediately grasped the situation. “Something amuse you?” She blew her smoke right at me.

I put on my best smartass smile. “Do you smoke while you’re running? Or just when you’re training? Or do you have like a pit crew who—instead of handing you a water cup as you sprint past—blows smoke at you?”

The look Annie gave me. I’d heard about hyperaggressive guys bearing down with predatory eyes, but I’d never seen them myself until that night. I felt alone and exposed, but also—I don’t know—special isn’t quite the right word— flattered, maybe? She took a last drag from her cigarette, snuffed out the cherry on a lamppost and put the butt in her pocket. She blew the smoke at me and said, “Name’s Annie. Let’s get out of here.”

We hit up a few places where she knew the bartenders. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. They were all places I’d been before, but with Annie it was different. Like the stand of trees behind your house you know so well because you spent your whole childhood playing in them, but then one day this brassy witch shows up and your little grove of trees is suddenly a Disney forest full of talking animals and sparkly fairies that smoke and drink vodka-cranberries. We talked and drank and joked. She wanted to be an astronomer. I wanted to be a writer. We laughed about how we’d never understand each other.

I doubt Annie was fine to drive, but she said she was, so I let her take us out of town. She said there was a place in a nature preserve overlooking an old quarry where you could see the stars. As we caromed through unlit country roads, Annie told me it would be a great night to see the Perseid meteor shower. They were a regular thing, every August like clockwork.

We parked and sat on the hood, leaning back against the windshield. It was silent but for our breath and the irregular tink of the engine cooling. The night was chilly and we huddled close. Annie put her fingers through mine and we watched meteors streak across the sky. Not a lot, not like fireworks, not regularly and not often, but just enough that you never bored of looking. The waiting became a game almost as fun as the reward.

I squeezed Annie’s hand and said, “Tell me about the stars.” And I sat there in St. Jude’s and I squeezed Annie’s hand and I said, “Let me tell you about the stars.” And I told her what she had told me.

“Funny,” she had said, “I was just thinking of the light from all those stars, which are just suns billions and billions of miles away. I was also thinking of how when a fast-moving car passes us, it’s a wonky blur. We can’t see it clearly. But, if you’re traveling the same speed as the car, it is perfectly clear. So, if we were to travel the same speed as light, light would become clear to us, right? The world we see, the ephemeral world, our everyday existence, is light blurring past us. So what would the world—and ourselves—what would we look like if we could see ourselves clearly for just a moment?

“Relativity tells us that as we approach the speed of light, time slows and—at the speed of light—time stops. If seeing the world clearly coincides with time stopping, time vanishing, wouldn’t that mean that true-true reality is the universe and ourselves without the effects of time? Time is light blurring past us.

“So there’s these shamans and mystery schools and whatnot whose traditions say that time can be overcome. Their rituals are supposed to allow the mind to transcend time, showing the initiate their souls, their true selves—which is what we are outside the constraints of time—just souls. It’s like these rituals propel consciousness to the speed of light, right? A human soul moving like a star through space.”

We sat in silence and I could tell she felt like she’d overshared, that she’d had the I’m-more-stoned-than-everybody-else moment. I turned to her and said, “Makes sense to me,” even though it didn’t, and then I kissed her.

And then I kissed her, there in St. Jude’s.


I like to think that in retelling that story, I understood what Annie had always been running toward. Maybe it wasn’t all nonsense. Instead of Annie pondering my alleged infidelity, I preferred to think that she was just running, blurring past the world, and that morning her consciousness finally caught up to the light, that time had stopped and she could see her soul clearly. And if she could see her soul, she could see my soul and all those little fragments of the one big soul she was a part of, her team. And that vision was so profound, so beautiful, so grand and expansive that it was too much for her mind and heart to hold, and she burst with the joy of that reunion. So when her body fell to the ground outside the Sunoco, it wasn’t a loss, but the ultimate boon. To me, she said, “I’m going,” but from the perspective of the soul she was returning to, she was saying, “I’m coming.”

Otherwise, why wouldn’t she come back to us?

Jeremy John Parker is a writer, book designer, and the fiction editor for Outlook Springs. A recipient of the 2015 Tom Williams Prize in Fiction, judged by Kevin Brockmeier, and a semifinalist for The Hudson Prize, his Pushcart Prize-nominated stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Normal School, CHEAP POP, The Coachella Review, and elsewhere. 

 Little Resurrection Machines 

BY: Jay Shearer

This one guy at the corner—sunburned and soiled and gnarly bearded—always stands with his sign before the red light traffic, and first, he sort of prays. Crosses himself as the cars idle. A slow deliberate sign of the cross with sanctified eyes toward heaven, then he’s off: panhandling between the cars. Homeless and in need. Please help. God bless you, etc. More people than you’d guess give him money. Even I have. But that gesture—the crossing of himself—has come to unsettle me more than it should. 

It sold well, at any rate. And whatever his story was, the kid was hurting. He was someone after all. Some someone’s son. Steadily hoofing the pavement all day so he could possibly score that evening, though I didn’t know for sure. Corner had a reputation.  

These thoughts gathered after I parked only a half or so block from the corner and entered our living room to find my own son, Theo, deep in complicated play. The sight of him there captured me fully. All concerns evaporated. Like that. A new world. 

He’d built a machine. A functioning system. Cobbled it together from cross-pollinated Lego sets and the patchwork orphan parts of toys. Blew me away when he showed me how it’s done. You put in a dead man and he came out living. 

He cranked a Lincoln log lever, and a plank bearing a tiny body on its back sank into a pit or chamber. “First you lower it down into this part here,” he said, “where the body gets exposed.” 


“Yeah.” He looked up, stating it flatly. “To the radiation.” 

“Ah.” I nodded. “Got you.” 

My son is a wild artistic soul seeded—or stained—by Lutheran school, preschool through now second grade. He’s still into farts and poop and toilets; a happy scatology lines a lot of his thinking, but when the boy puts the time in elsewhere, he’s really got something to say. 

And the body (dead) was lowered into this pit or chamber, this radioactive oven thing, but “good radioactive,” Theo insisted, “filled with sunshine and vitamins and the electric blood of angels.” Electric blood, he explained when I asked, to give it a charge. The body. 

And this freshly exposed—or charged—body emerged from the radioactive oven chamber through little plastic doors that open outward patiently, glacially, then sailed along these loosely connected conveyor belt-ish planks propelled by an unseen force, until it dropped at last in a kind of baptismal font (tiny plastic basin actually containing some water), from which this body popped out on the off-ramp, toy arms out in flamboyant ta-da!  

“Pretty cool, right?” he said. 

Amazed, I stared down at the triumphant little figure, arms out, plastic skin dripping just slightly. “It’s incredibly cool,” I said, trying not to gush. “Great job, guy. Awesome. Truly. What, uh, what’s it called?” 

Theo stared at his creation and shrugged. “I call it the Resurrection Machine,” he said. “For now. But it could have a better name.” 

“Oh no. No. That’s the name. That’s just right.”  

“I don’t like it. Could be better.” 

“It’s perfect. Simple. Direct. Right on point.” 

“I don’t like it.” 

“Aw come on, man. I mean, really…what would be better?” 

My son, in his ageless sometimes tranquil way, pursed his lips in contemplation, finger and thumb cradling his chin. “I was thinking something that has to do with, um, Lazarus. You know him? The other one who gets resurrected? I’d call it, like…the Lazarus Factory. Or the Great Oven of Lazarus. Or…oh I don’t know what.” 

“Why not Jesus? The Great Oven of Jesus?” 

Theo dismissed this at once, irritated. “Everybody makes it about Jesus,” he said. “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. All the time, Jesus.” 

“Well. He’s pretty important when it comes to resurrections. He’s the most famous resurrection by far.” 

Theo shook his head. “It’s not fair. Everybody forgets about Lazarus.” 

I nodded in semi-understanding. I liked the spirit of it for sure. This guy, this nobody, had also been raised from the dead and never got any credit for it. There was monopoly-breaking there. Resistance to the dominant system. Though I didn’t really know the Lazarus story, I’ll confess. I only had vague Sunday school memories. I recognized the name and its link to resurrection but little else. What I knew was the boy knew it well. 

“Alright. We’ll make it about Lazarus,” I said. “Why not call it…” I thought a second, forcing things a little. “Lazarus City?” 

Theo winced hard. “It’s not a city. That’s dumb.” 

“Okay yes. Maybe so. How about the, uh”—and the word just came—“Lazar-ama?” 

The boy’s eyes popped, mouth dropped. “Yes! That!” He bounced to his feet, a single motion. Part smooth, part clunky. “The Lazar-ama!” 

And he ran off to tell his mother.  

Well, right off, I regretted having said it. “The Lazar-ama” was too jokey. Too wacky. It seemed to belittle the beauty of the machine. The Resurrection Machine. Which was all the name it needed.  

This became a point of tension, I hate to say. My fault, mostly. Don’t know why I pursued it. Something petty and controlling took hold in me. I lobbied the boy right from the start. We debated the issue for some time, actually. It got a little heated. Then Lupe intervened.  

“But, Barry,” she says to me, all even-keeled and gentle-voiced, brimming over with rational calm. “Why can’t it be the Laza-rama and the Resurrection Machine? Lots of things have two names.” 

This made good sense. Great sense even. She was smartest among us, after all. But Theo wouldn’t budge.  

“I want to call it the Laza-rama! It’s my machine!” A flash of crazed anger here. “Why can’t I call it its name?” 

The air hung thick with naked feeling. 

“You can, Theo,” I said, softening the tone as coached. “But Mommy’s suggesting that we each call it the name we like. We can call it two names, right? What’s wrong with that?” 

“What’s wrong is it’s only got one name.” He was worked up now, reddening. “The Lazar-ama! Only that!” And he stormed off to his room, weirdly on the verge of tears. 

I went rigid and looked back at Lupe. She shook her head in vague disapproval. 

“Okay, okay,” I said, annoyed, turning back to watch him stomp off. “We’ll call it whatever you want! It’s the…fucking Lazar-ama.” 

The boy froze in his tracks. The air went cold. I turned to find Lupe: ashen, eyes wide.  

“I shouldn’t have said that,” I said. “Sorry, hon. I didn’t mean that. I…” I turned to see Theo trudging toward me fast. “I’m sorry, bud. I shouldn’t have said that.” 

He stood before me, alive with indignation. “That’s why I don’t like you,” he said. “I can say it too, you know?” He crossed his arms, gathering up the courage—“Fuck you.” 

We both gasped. “Theo!” Lupe said. And the boy trudged off again. 

We stood in stunned silence—he’d never dropped this bomb before. Nowhere near it.  

Lupe went to comfort the boy in his room. I stood dead still on the carpet and listened to the clock tick. The boy was crying now. I tried to enter the room but Lupe waved me away. Better to leave him be. For now. Just go. 


I got in the Corolla and shot off for a ride to clear my head. This wasn’t a thing to meditate over. Apologize, make up, move on. Nothing a hot fudge sundae wouldn’t cure. Or some super hero regalia. Though I knew what ailed him—and us—needed deeper salve than snacks or clothing. As of late, his explosions had hit extremes we once assumed we’d never see. Way back, we’d called him The Buddha Baby, so pacified had he arrived. And now this? 

I glanced down at the console and noticed the gas was nearly gone. I swung down the quick half block to the Shell station. As I filled the tank, I ruminated into the dark May evening. What an idiotic battle to choose. 

Someone approached then. And I wanted nothing to do with anyone—especially this, which stank at once of solicitation. The guy wore a long-dated Eight Ball jacket and multi-hued baseball cap, logo-free. He seemed cut from the cloth of 1988, ’89. His eyes contained a soft plea, which as he grew closer, seemed to morph into something harder. Bearded, too-skinny dude in his forties walking toward me from the corner where the junkies panhandled for the day traffic. “Hey, sir. Can I have your ear a minute?” 

“All yours. Up until I fill this tank.” 

“My car broke down out here.” He waved back toward the bustling avenue. “Ran out of gas. And I left my wallet at home. Can you believe that?” 

“Maybe I can,” I said. “Sometimes it’s hard to.” 

“I know it sounds like a story. Listen. I’ve got my little daughter in the car back there. She’s sitting there with—” 

“Your little daughter?” 

“That’s right.”  

“How old?” 

“She’s, uh, she’s seven.” 

I nodded. “My boy’s seven.” 

“Ah. See? We’ve got a, uh, simpatico then.” Nice touch there. Simpatico. Maybe he’s legit. “I’m not feeding you a line here,” he said. “I need to get back to Waukegon. Tonight. Got work tomorrow. And the uh”—as if he’d just remembered—“my daughter has school. You know how important that is.” 

The clip on the gas gun ticked up in the trigger rest. I re-holstered the pump and took my receipt. “I do know. I truly do. But—“ 

“Can you spare some money for me? Please. I need help, man. I’m not shitting you.” 

He was pleading, pretty good at it, a little too good maybe, but what did I know? 

I de-pocketed my wallet and found a ten and four ones. I gave him three dollar bills. 

“You can’t spare a little more?” he said, having seen the spread. “I’m trying to get back to Waukegon. I got my little daughter in the car.” 

It was a fabulous detail, Waukegon. Forty miles north of the city. But I didn’t appreciate the push. I leaned in toward him a bit. “Really?” I said tightly, some misguided feeling here. “Because I’ve heard this sort of story many times. I’ve been scammed before—and right near here. But … there you go”—I gave him another dollar. “That’s all I got.” 

He squinted a bit and lifted his head to contemplate me. “I appreciate it. I really do.” He nodded at me with new apprehension. “Thank you.” 

“Good luck in Waukegon,” I said. “Best to your daughter.” But what I really wanted to say was: next time, I suggest you bring your daughter with you. That’d win a heart much faster. And a wallet. Guaranteed. 

Did he know he was soliciting funds near a recognized junkie corner? The Junkie Corner. Where young, wind-scarred males and the occasional strung out female held up signs about their homelessness and need for food, walking slowly through the traffic like wounded martyrs, pleading to cars stopped at reds. Then took the day’s winnings and scored in the evening; shot up right there in the mini-alley by the pharmacy or in the gas station bathroom.  

I’d seen this a few times with my own eyes. Local models of desperation, addiction. Loss of dignity, hope, the central self—on open display if you looked long enough. Was this guy new to their number? Telling his story that close to their corner? Maybe. Maybe not. Years ago, the tall, talkative gas station kid who worked nights told me that’s what they called it. Junkie Corner. He’d many times caught them turning on in the gas station bathroom, as I had once. Which is when I started watching closer and stopped handing out dollars or change.  

Why’d it matter if it was food or drugs? They’d chosen their form of sustenance and I’d chosen not to fund their survival. Any way you cut it, had to cut it cold.  


That night I dreamt of a dark cave dripping with cold. The moist clay walls were impossibly smooth. Insects skittered. I held a candle and spoke in hushed tones with my cave mates. Evidently no one knew the way out. But I had to pick up Theo from Tae Kwan Do and couldn’t be late or he’d be abandoned. In the way of dreams, this was certain. Then Jesus walked up from nowhere through the dark and took my hand. He guided me toward a pinhole of light at the far end of the cave. Must be the exit out! But the pinhole of light never got larger—not really. Turned out to be the light from a movie projector projecting a film on the cave’s wall. It was a movie of ancient pictographs found on a cave wall, which was in turn being projected onto a cave wall. Even Jesus found this funny. But I was devastated. A feeling of great frustration, confusion, trapped in here when I was needed out there. 


A few days later, after time with Theo at the massive park, the one it takes longer to walk to, I suggest a hot fudge sundae and of course he concedes. It’s my second attempt to curry favor with the boy since our conflict—the first a stuffed toy Batman that came unstuffed near the Bat-crotch within the hour of giving. Here, though, was a masterwork of persuasion via a corner diner: scoops of pristine vanilla potted in a vintage glass bowl, the fudge a viscous chocolate yolk from some sort of decadent egg. Took Theo hostage before he even touched his spoon. 

After, we walked around the neighborhood by the park, just a little different-seeming than ours. The evening air was a balmy blanket and we both felt fat and jazzed with sugar. But at a corner gas station—here, a good five or six blocks from our place—I saw my friend from Waukegon out in the near distance: the upright posture, just a touch hangdog, the soft steady plea in his eyes. He nodded to whoever turned him down, then came toward us on the sidewalk. 

“Sorry, sir. Can I, uh, can I have your ear a minute?” 

He didn’t recognize me. I was some lost file in the hard drive. His jeans seemed greasier, a new unkempt something in his air. T-shirt, no jacket, basketball shoes torn at the toe. I let him go, perhaps cruelly, just to see. 

“I know it sounds like a story,” he said, again, about a paragraph into it. “Listen. I’ve got my little daughter in the car back there.” He pointed around the corner. 

“Your daughter’s still in the car?” I said, unable to hold back. “She must be hungry.” 

“She, uh, she might be. Yeah.” 

“Gotta get back to Waukegon, right?” 

A barely discernable freeze of gaze, tilt of head. 

“Do I know you?” 

“No. But I know you.”  

He winced, not liking this, though not exactly “caught” either. I said, “I gave you a couple bucks the other night. Not far off actually. Six or so blocks south of here.” 

He lifted his chin, went aaaaah. “Okay okay. Yes. Thank you for that.” 

“You run out of gas a lot.” 

“I have lately. Today it’s engine trouble. But…I don’t like your attitude.”  

Theo chimed in, asking the obvious: “Who’s watching your daughter?” 

His brow rose. This was either cunning or earnest defense. So hard to tell. 

“You wanna meet her?” 

“Listen,” I said. “You don’t need to do this.” 

“Why not?” he said, a bit testy here. “Come on. Let’s go.” 

Reluctantly, I followed with Theo. We walked west nearly half a block. Most of me was embarrassed. The guy stopped then at a junked-out, purple Toyota Tercel with a window taped up, bumper cracked.  

“Here we go. She’s right in—” And we all saw the car was empty. He hunched down and gripped the back window. “Kayla!” He yanked open the back door, as if she might be hiding under a seat, then—grave panic in his eyes—he shouted her name and walked west at a tight clip. “Kayla! Kayla!” 

I took Theo’s hand. We watched him storm off, calling for Kayla. 

“His daughter’s gone,” said Theo. “That’s weird.” 

It was impossible to know what to think, my embarrassment suddenly overruled by a white blaze of confusion. “It is,” I said, “but don’t worry.” 

“Wonder where she went,” said Theo. 

“Don’t worry. She’ll be back. He’ll find her.” 

“What if he doesn’t?” 

“He will. He will.”  

We watched the man look down the gangways between buildings, calling her name, searching. He crossed the street and did the same from the other side, trudging back toward the corner. He crossed back again at the crossway, half a block off from us, and stomped toward the gas station, where he went out of view. If merely a show, it was quite convincing.  

Theo started walking back toward the gas station, but I didn’t follow. Most of me thought we should leave the matter be. Again, the boy gestured I should come. Let’s go see. Please. And we turned at the corner by the gas station, where we saw the man speaking to the cashier, who was behind protective glass on the island between the pumps. 

Theo stood on the sidewalk, clearly worried for the man and his daughter.  

“I’m not sure what we can do now,” I said.  

“We could call the police. Couldn’t we? We could do that.” 

The man noticed us as he moved at an off-angle toward the corner, stern of eye, shaking his head. “I don’t need you. Go away!” He gave a dismissive wave. “You only make it worse!” 

And he turned again at the corner, stepping fast to the car, calling again for Kayla, Kayla! 

Theo was shaken by it, his face gone cold. We walked in silence. I tried to reassure him but he wasn’t moved. A few blocks later, he stopped us at a corner and said, “Wait.” 

“We can’t go back, Theo. He doesn’t want us there.” 

“I know,” he said, looking up with distressed eyes. “But would you pray with me? For the little girl?” 

“Right here?” 

“It’s an emergency.” He clasped his hands together, closed his eyes. The ceremony was in motion. No stopping it now. I found this—the intensity, the raw belief—disturbing, even creepy, but I bowed my head anyway. Not participating would be cruel. “Dear God, please…” And the boy was off. An impassioned prayer for Kayla and her father. Please help her, God. Help her dad find her. She left the car and is lost now. They are good people with a bad problem. Maybe show her the way or at least get her some food because she’s very hungry. French fries or a chili dog, whatever you can spare. But most of all, God, keep Satan away. Please don’t let Satan near her. Please? And Theo let out a steadying breath. Amen. 

We raised our heads and met eyes, and in that gaze, I’ll concede I was moved. Not by the religion or god involved but rather, his depth of feeling. He really meant it. It was like the revelation of a new power, something I’d missed. Like he’d learned how to play an exotic instrument and somehow I hadn’t known. 


That night I walked slowly through a vivid field, a gorgeous windswept grassy expanse, where big green blade swayed. Rays from the sun landed in splashes. Birds cawed. 

As I moved forward, a figure appeared, hunched down in the giant grass, revealed in flashes as the wind swept the blades back and forth. She was seated on the ground, arms cradling her knees, in a thin-threaded white cotton dress that vividly played against her skin. She looked up with untroubled calm. I asked her if she needed to get back to Waukegon. 

She shrugged. “Probably,” she said. But she didn’t seem scared. Or even lonely. She told me she’d had a huge lunch from an all-you-can-eat buffet, and no one, not even God, needed to bring her any food. There were empty white China plates around her, some with piles of bones from chicken wings or pork chops, plus Chinese carry-out boxes, plastic soda cups. When I asked where it came from, she said her new friend had brought it. And I see off in the distance, from a figure also hunched in the grass, a pair of jaundiced beady eyes. Some underworld demi-god is the implication. Corrupting and using her. Shaken, I asked if she wanted me to take her to her dad, and she said that wasn’t possible. He had to find her on his own. Just like you do, she told me. I winced. Like I do? She winced, also confused, and said, “You don’t have someone you need to find?” 

It was a zinger of a dream, the kind where you jerk awake and touch something nearby to confirm the world. That it exists. And it does, for the most part. At least in the waking hours. 

After I woke, I saw in the kitchen that Lupe had left out her copy of the Holy Bible, New International Version, bookmarked at the Lazarus story. So she hadn’t known it either, which gave me a vain, dim relief. But as I read, I was shaken by the details, even angered. The resurrection of Lazarus wasn’t a separate, off-Jesus event at all. In fact, read one way, it was a publicity stunt—pure and simple. Cynically timed so the Superstar could show off his hotshot magic. Here’s how the apostle John reports it: 

Mary, the sister of Lazarus, sent a request for Jesus to come help her brother, who was deathly ill in a distant town. Jesus knew the guy well, really loved him, and understood he needed immediate help, yet Jesus Christ decided, without explanation, to wait two days before leaving. Two full days, intentionally stalling, when he could have been healing his friend. Then, from nowhere, he gathers the disciples and tells them he’s taking off; their old friend Lazarus has expired. Seems he allowed the poor guy to die. So he’d have a chance to weep about it. 

One of the most famous phrases in the bible, in fact, pops right out of the Lazarus story: Jesus wept. Praised for its economy and dramatic force: Jesus wept. And he did after Mary gave him the official word. My guess is his tears for Lazarus were real, as was his grief, though I’d bet some guilt got in there too. Self-loathing, etc. After intentionally waiting for his friend to die? So he could put on a killer magic show? Like one of those corny mass appeal magicians who make buildings or boats disappear, then bring them back—poof—as if our eyes, our very senses, are naïve bumpkins caught in a world we can’t begin to see. 


When Lupe came home from work, before I left to pick up Theo from Tae Kwan Do, I confronted her about Lutheran school, which I thought we should reconsider despite the obvious perks. She was defensive right off.  

“I know, I know,” I said, palms up, keeping her at bay. “The classes are small and he seems to thrive there and of course he gets the mostly free tuition.”  

“Mostly free?” said Lupe. Her sister Carmelita taught there and had worked it out so we didn’t pay a dime.  

“Oh I think we’re paying in other ways,” I said. “Or Theo is. I mean, he believes in Satan. Did you know this? Like, he closes his eyes intensely and begs God to ‘keep Satan away.’” 

Lupe was addled; this broke her serenity a second. 

“There are a few new families there,” she said, eyeing some enemy in her mind’s eye. “Real evangelicals. Firebrands. I’ll tell Carm to keep her eye out.” 

“Well, he’s around that every day and I…I just think we should try public school.” 

Lupe sighed. “Why would we do that, Barry? He’s thriving there. You just said so yourself. His test scores are off the charts. Plus he loves it.” 

I shook my head and retreated from speech. She knew what bugged me: people I didn’t know with ideas I didn’t care for, his budding mind under their influence. He was learning a language and code for living neither of us endorsed or understood.  


When I picked up Theo from Tae Kwan Do, he was still in his sharp white robe with the black belt. Inside the Corolla, he opened his bag to show me a project he’d started in art class. The teacher’d told him it was very conscientious and brave. 

“Conscientious and brave? Wow. Sounds pretty avant-garde.” 

“Avant what?” he said and then pulled out what he had to show me. “No. Just these. Will you help me put them up around the neighborhood?” 

I nearly rear-ended the car before me. The tires screeched. Pedestrians stared. I pulled over and put on the hazards. What he’d shown me were three to four 8×11 posters of a little pig-tailed girl with sad eyes in a pink dress. Across the top: MissingKayla, five years old! Then beneath the picture: Have You Seen Me? Please Help! Call 773-423-2323.  

“Theo, you can’t…well, you can’t broadcast our phone number through the neighborhood. What would we even do if someone did call?”

“I don’t know. Find her. Help her.” 

“How do you even know what she looks like? Or how old she is?” 

“I saw her in a dream. Just last night. She looks just like this—” and he pointed. 

It didn’t surprise me he’d dreamt about her too. The incident had been striking and rife with weird stress. It’d be first in line at the door to the subconscious. And now it was his turn to lobby hard. “I don’t care!” he insisted. “I’m putting these up!” When we got home, Lupe thought his heart was in the right place and defended the effort, which infuriated me. Was she suggesting we actually poster the neighborhood? Seriously? With the hand-drawn picture of a child’s dream of a missing girl who might not exist? 

Theo flipped into a wild fury. Did the most destructive thing available. He stomped the Lazar-ama to smithereens right there in the living room proper. Tinker toys, Legos, tiny limbs from figurines—in seconds flat, tornadic devastation.  

Lupe comforted him, held him close. After he settled down, he explained: he had instructions that were maybe from God, right? God sent messages in dreams, right? I saw her, he said. I talked to her. She’s five years old and looks exactly like this. Lupe looked up at me. She knew the whole story and my take on it. And she gave me the warm if devilish smile I’ve been helpless against since we met. She said: how about we do this? 

Theo wanted to make Xeroxes and post them throughout the hood—like, fifty of them, which Lupe explained was out of the question. We hashed it out. Lupe was sure to include me. I even gave the suggestion and/or ultimatum it was hardest for the boy to accept. But he came around. We compromised: he could put up the four existing posters if he blotted out our phone number with heavy black Magic Marker. The directive would now read, simply:  

Please Call the Police.  

I’ll admit I felt silly taping them to poles and bus stops. And not just silly but strange. Strangeness pulsed through me, a bright-blooded feeling, like a mischievous ghost passing through. And I’d hoped to avoid Junkie Corner, but Theo insisted we post one near. Why would we skip the busiest corner? I wondered of course if I’d run into the man from Waukegon. What would he think if he saw the poster? How would he feel? Angry maybe. On the other hand, possibly amused. Who knew? And what if she existed? And what if she didn’t? 

While posting her picture on a pole near their corner, one of the guys with a sign returned from having worked the traffic and came to read Theo’s poster. He had busted-up, sun-drenched skin and rare, angelic eyes. The dirt beneath his nails was dark as ink.  

“I’ll keep an eye out for her,” he said. “She your daughter?” 

Theo answered: “She’s someone else’s daughter. We’re just friends.” 

The guy talked to us a while, and brought it around soon enough to what he needed and if we could help him out. I patted down the poster for good measure and told him sorry. Can’t today. And I took Theo’s hand and shipped off. 

Again, the boy was resistant. Why couldn’t we give him some money? I tell him it doesn’t necessarily help to give them money. And he winces hard, like: how doesn’t that help them? That doesn’t make sense. 

We made a deal without rancor, a new way between us, and bought a dozen donuts from the Dunkin in the gas station. The corner guys—three of them there—appeared reasonably pleased. We talked and joked a bit as these three young dirtbags in their twenties ate Long Johns, Boston creams, blueberry cakes, krullers. They really were hungry. Very. I don’t know why I’d put that in question. They looked malnourished, exhausted, a few ways over. Now they licked their lips and went mmm, that’s good, as they took a brief break from walking through the traffic with their signs. 

Jay Shearer’s writing has appeared, among other places, in Southeast Review, Chicago Quarterly ReviewMayday Magazine and Tikkun. He is the author of a novel, Five Hundred Sirens (Cairn Press), a chapbook noveletteThe Pulpit vs. the Hole (Gold Line Press) and a play, The Full Treatment (performed last year at Broom Street Theater in Madison). He teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago and lives in the city with his family. 

Holy Land

By: Rachael Warecki

“I dare you,” Danny Kane said, nodding at the cross on top of the hill.

It was Wednesday: the day we’d received our report cards. I remember that much, although Holy Land USA wouldn’t have looked much different if it had been any other day of the week. There were acres of abandoned, overgrown land between us and the cross, populated with worn-out reproductions of ancient Israel as imagined by the Connecticut zealots who’d built the place forty years before. When you walked up Slocum Street in the daytime, you could see tiny clusters of fake hillside houses sloping into one another and carved signs proclaiming Jesus’s sovereignty; the whole place had the look of a desperate Old Testament yard sale, the kind my neighbors sometimes had, filled with junk no one wanted. From where we stood on Washington Street, though, you could only see the cross. You could see that cross from anywhere in Waterbury.

I shoved my hands deep into my jacket pockets and pushed my wad of gum toward my back teeth, watched my breath pattern the air every time I exhaled. If I pursed my lips, I could pretend I was smoking, like my uncle. Even a godly man has his vices, he’d said when I’d told him that cigarettes were bad for his health. I started way back when I was your age and we didn’t know any better. It was the rationale he hauled out for most of his weaknesses. Sometimes I wondered if he’d come out of the womb slightly warped, or if, like Holy Land, Waterbury had forced him to decay into a baser nature—a question that gnaws at me even now, fifteen years down the road, when I’m spending money I don’t have on a beer I shouldn’t drink or losing yet another job for snapping back at the foreman.

“Dare me to what?” I asked Danny. As if I didn’t know. As if he hadn’t dared me to do the same thing every day of that eighth grade year, using our hours at West Side Middle School to fill his notebook margins with doodles of the brambled-over Holy Land sign. I’d never taken him up on it, though: something about the way Danny had wrapped his insecurities around that gutted, not-quite-sacred expanse of hillside straitjacketed my sympathy, turned me cruel.

“Run up and touch it.”

We contemplated the cross for a moment while I worked on my gum. The Sisters of St. Lucy Filippini had taken up a collection to electrify it, more or less, and even the people who didn’t have the cash to power their own apartments had donated a few bucks to keep the lights on in God’s abandoned mansion—I knew the Kanes had pitched in, thanks to Danny’s begging. It was a golden, flickering thing, that cross, even in the too-soon sunset of the wintry evening, but then again, Danny was a golden, flickering kid, a shade darker than the rest of us in the South End, and smaller, too, with the trick of seeming impermanent—one moment, he’d be right beside you, and then you’d blink and he’d be up a tree, or ducking through the doorway of one of the left-for-dead buildings common in our part of Waterbury. He’d walk in your blind spots and then smirk when you’d turn around and jump, startled to find him there.

 “Run up and touch it?” I said. “That’s nothing. That’s, like, Polly Pocket-level stuff.”

“If it’s no big deal, then let’s do it. Unless you’re a chicken.”

I dare you. How many childhood adventures—how many childhood regrets—have begun with those words? Danny and I were naïve in the same way all dying-industry-town boys are naïve, making choices based on the least-bad possible outcomes, picking from the various terrible options our parents had willed to us with their own awful decisions. Danny’s options were better than mine—he had good grades, two living, employed parents and a baby sister, teachers who talked to him like he had a future beyond the borders of the Yankee Expressway and the Naugatuck River—which is why running up to touch the cross felt like a dare that should’ve come from a different set of friends, other kids of laid-off, pissed-off brass factory workers and broken families who had nothing better to do than waste time and get into trouble, as everyone predicted we’d do for the rest of our miserable South End lives.

Coming from Danny, though, on that particular Wednesday, it felt like an invitation to escape, as if Danny’s Holy Land fixation had the power to lift me up and out of Waterbury right along with him. I imagined an evening dodging Danny’s theological nagging with a series of what-ifs I’d learned to keep a lid on even back then, what-ifs that encompassed the vague ideas of white-collar adulthood I’d picked up from television: managing an office in New York, breadwinning for a wife and two kids in picket-fenced suburbia, meeting up with Danny every so often to congratulate ourselves on how we’d beaten the neighborhood odds. Or maybe I just didn’t want to kick around my uncle’s spare, barren apartment, my shoulders winding tighter as I waited for him to come home and see my grades.

“Fine,” I said. “Let’s do it. It’ll be easy. You’ll see.”


“You’re not running,” Danny said.

“No shit,” I said. “Like I can run through this.”

I jerked my head toward the Grotto of the Holy Family, half-shrouded in trees. Branches scraped against my cheeks, my forehead, close to my eyes. Some would-be park preserver had chain-linked the Grotto’s entrance, but the fence was broken in places and the top edge looked like fangs; the imprisoned Joseph and Mary statues gazed at each other with half-eroded faces that, in the dark, seemed less like a result of time and weather, and more like a symptom of religious Bell’s palsy. The whole Grotto—the paint peeling from affirmations engraved in its walls, a chunked-up Love God sign sinking into the soil piece by piece—suggested Holy Land was suffering from some internal earth-borne illness, ready to transmit its contagion to anyone who wandered through. There was a reason the Filippini Sisters discouraged would-be explorers from sneaking in: they didn’t want tourists to sue them after catching a case of tetanus.

I couldn’t see Danny—he was behind me and to my left, judging by his voice—but I knew he was shrugging, lifting one shoulder and one eyebrow in that weird way that always reminded me of my neighbor Mrs. Duchamps, who’d had a stroke two years before. “Just thought you’d be moving faster,” he said. “It’s gonna get late if we’re in here much longer. Your uncle is gonna wonder where you are.”

“No, he’s not.” I pushed a bramble aside and heard it snap back into place, sharp as the sound of a bone breaking. As we pushed our way through the overgrowth in the dark, it was easy to imagine the trees and thorny bushes reaching through the Grotto’s empty windows and snaring themselves around our limbs. “He’s leading youth group tonight.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be there? Since you’re a youth?”

“You’re a youth, too, dickwad.”

I shoved thoughts of my uncle’s stern face and stentorian voice out of my head, tried not to think about his hands, which always held the promise of anger: big hands, a boxer’s hands; people said he’d been a real heavyweight in high school, before he was busted for possession with intent to distribute and the Lord got to him. He still taught the older neighborhood boys how to spar down in the church basement on the nights he wasn’t leading youth group; he taught me, too, little semi-formal fistfights that left his knuckles bruised and my head woozy, and if he sometimes went too far—knocked one of those high school boys cock-eyed and bloody, loosened a few of my back molars—everyone in our neighborhood knew it was a kind of love, even if most times it didn’t feel like love at all. “He’s probably just talking about the same stuff he always does. Heaven and Hell and righteousness and all that crap. Big deal.”

If you believed my uncle, Hell could be anywhere and everywhere in Waterbury: in the clusters of not-quite-melted snow along the edges of the immigrant apartments in Brooklyn; in the blood-stained operating rooms of St. Mary’s; in the sad, sawed-wood smell of the carpentry classrooms at Kaynor Tech; in the ghost of Mad George Metesky, who was recently dead in those days and whose spirit, my uncle said, floated around the town, reeking of sulfur. Even Holy Land—especially Holy Land—presented a surreal underworld, where Judas was the mayor of Jerusalem and demons slept in Baby Jesus’s manger. A few years later, on the brink of the new millennium, a couple of snooty magazines named Waterbury one of the ten worst places to live and work in America, as if the Devil had examined the decaying Naugatuck Valley Mall and the hateful screeds in the Republican-American and decided he’d found his summer home. Again and again, in the decades that came both before and after, the people of Waterbury proved he’d made the right choice: twelve years after our night climbing that hill, the police would find the body of a teenage girl, raped and murdered, draped at the foot of Holy Land’s cross like a blasphemous Magdalene.

“Sure, big deal,” Danny repeated, but his voice was shrouded and distant, or maybe it was just the nighttime wedging itself between us. He coughed. “God, it stinks in here.”

“We’re in the Holy Land, moron. You shouldn’t take the Lord’s name in vain.”

He shoved me and I tripped over a root. “Shut up,” he said. “You know what I mean. It smells…I dunno, like when Tony Giordano pissed himself that one time, when he was scared of the clown at Maria’s birthday.”

“It does not,” I said, but I knew what he meant. It wasn’t cold enough to snow yet, but it wasn’t warm enough for anything to thrive, and so my nose was stuffed with the thick, wet, urine-y stench of decaying leaves and rusted-over metal. It reminded me of the day three years ago when they’d buried my parents: shivering beside their fresh-dug graves, I knew I was supposed to imagine their souls floating up to be with God—my uncle had told me to—but all I could think of was arms shooting out of newly turned dirt, partially decomposed bodies shoving older gravestones out of their way. That was how Holy Land felt that night, Heaven and Hell layered over each other in ways so subtle that distinguishing the two was impossible.

“You think Heaven really smells like this?” Danny asked.

“Hell, no. It probably smells like New York pizza and Ms. Rossi’s perfume and Yankee Stadium.” A few months ago, after a class trip to the city, Danny and I had agreed that those were the three best things in the world, but only if the pizza had pepperoni and not anchovies.

“What do you know about it?” he asked. “You don’t even believe in all that. That they’re real places.”

“I do.”

“You don’t act like it.”

I stopped for a moment to find my footing—we’d reached that steep, final climb up to the cross—and felt some part of Danny, maybe his forehead, bump against my shoulder. I resisted the urge to push him completely off-balance. The afterlife had become a big deal to him after what had happened to my mom and dad, although he’d never admit it. The idea that someone’s parents could be alive one second and dead the next was something he’d obsessed over on those in-between nights when I’d stayed at his house, before I’d ended up at my uncle’s, and he’d gotten so worked up about the possibility of eternal separation from his mom and dad that I’d finally had to tell him to shut up. He’d even started trying to go to church for a little bit, taking communion and pawing rosaries until I’d yelled at him to back off and cut it out. Maybe that’s why he was so obsessed with Holy Land: here was a place where you could technically get to Heaven just by slipping through a chink in the fence, no extra effort required.

I wanted to tell him it didn’t matter, that if anyone in the South End could turn out decent enough to make it into the Eternal Kingdom the hard way, it would be Danny Kane. Looking back, I wish I could’ve let him know just how much his family wasn’t like mine. His mom and dad would always toe the line, keep their hands to themselves and hold their anger tight against their jawlines, measure love in a currency other than bruises, track the number of drinks they’d had before stupidly getting behind the wheel of a car. Any other kid with a blind side like Danny’s, I would’ve opened his eyes in short order, but his knack for disappearing kept me from saying too much: he would vanish from Waterbury soon enough, I sensed, to college or some skilled apprenticeship, and I wanted to give him a reason to come back. I didn’t want to make it too easy for him to leave me behind.

“Why do you care?” I asked. “You’re not my uncle.”

I pushed off of a mossy stepping stone—one of the headstones marking the Stations of the Cross; this one read Jesus is stripped of his garments—and heard Danny scramble behind me, his voice high, his breath fast. “But don’t you want to end up wherever your parents are?”

“They’re in Heaven,” I lied.


We were almost to the top of the hill when we heard the noises. Fight sounds, but not the kind we’d ever heard in person—these were sounds we recognized from Pay-Per-View, from Tyson and Holyfield and Lewis pounding each other into submission with brutal professional detachment. There were voices, too, both male, one high and pleading and constant, the other lower and slower, with pauses.

“What’s that?” Danny asked.

“I dunno.” I stopped walking. “Some people getting into it, like they always do.”

But I didn’t move forward. The punching noises stopped, but the voices got louder until that first voice dissolved into tears. I glanced over my shoulder at Danny. Crying was the wimpiest way to lose a fight; Tony Giardano had cried once in the second grade, after getting socked by some older kid, and it was why the rest of us still kept a catalog of his weakest moments, all the pants-pissing and snot-bawling and whimpering for his mom. I’d learned to take my licks early on, and I couldn’t believe there was an adult man on top of that hill who hadn’t done the same. The second voice also seemed astonished. It paused, and when it started up again, it was more forceful, the kind of tone God might have used when talking to Adam and Eve: Didn’t I tell you not to eat the fruit? Or, if discussing more mundane matters: Didn’t you promise you would raise your grades this term?

Danny fidgeted behind me. “That sounds like your uncle.”

I’d taken my wad of gum out my mouth with the idea that I’d stick it on the cross when we got there, proof that I’d finished the dare, but instead I rubbed it back and forth between my fingers, squishing the last moisture out before it rubberized from exposure. “Shut up,” I hissed, although my heart had fallen down an elevator shaft at the sound of that second voice. “I told you, he’s at youth group.”

“I’m just saying, it sounds like him.”

“It’s nobody,” I said, and hoped that Danny would believe me: that the part of him that worried over Heaven and Hell and basic human kindness would shy away from something so violent, put the dare off for another day, and start back down the hill. And yet I didn’t suggest we leave. There was something Tony Giardano-like in Danny’s obsession with Holy Land, and that tiny cruel side of me wanted to rub his face in his discomfort in the same way we teased Tony about his third-hand clothes, which were just one degree worse than our hand-me-downs.

We listened for the space of a few breaths, the air around us frosting with our exhalations. I thought again of my uncle’s cigarette smoke and clamped my mouth shut. There was a sickening crunch, like someone had just gotten his nose broken. “Doesn’t sound like nobody,” Danny said.

“I’m telling you that’s what it is.”

“Well, if it’s nobody…” Danny cracked his knuckles. I tried not to jump. “If it’s nobody, then you can finish the dare, right?”


The very top of the hill, right around the cross, had been kept completely bare of everything except grass, as if even trees knew better than to grow there. I wasn’t expecting it, though—I’d gotten used to bushwhacking—and so when Danny and I broke into the clearing, we had nowhere to hide, nothing to obscure the space between us and the scene taking place at the foot of the cross. Whoever had built the cross had stuck it in a cement block for stability, and it was on this block that a boy sprawled, his back against the cross’s base. His head lolled from side to side. His face was a mess of bruises, and it was clear he’d been the one to have his nose broken. It was also clear who’d broken it for him. As we stutter-stepped to a halt—we’d dashed those last few yards to the clearing, like the dare was something we could get over and done with, me thinking that if we moved fast enough then maybe Danny wouldn’t see anything—my uncle rose from his crouch near the boy and turned to face us.

“Jamie,” my uncle said, nodding at me. He squinted into the darkness. “Danny. Good evening.”

“Hi,” I said. Danny didn’t say anything. I wanted to put my hands over his eyes; instead, I shoved them into my pockets, pretended they were frozen. I felt my wad of gum unstick itself from my palm and nestle in among the lint and spare change and leftover movie tickets that had been run through the washing machine one too many times, gluing itself to my crumpled report card.

“You’ve caught me in something of a position here,” my uncle said. “I was just having a conversation with Sean. You remember Sean.”

It took me a moment to realize that yes, I did remember Sean. He was a tenth-grader whose youngest brother had been in my sixth-grade class the previous year; I’d seen him a dozen times at church. A year or so before, he’d dunked my head in one of the church toilets, not out of any particular malice, but because I’d been the right age to get my head dunked and he’d been the right age to do the dunking. The toilet had been flushed recently, but not cleaned, and I’d struggled to close my eyes and nose and mouth against the particles of shit and dried piss that flooded my face, all the while thinking that this was the worst, worse than bruises and shotgun-trigger anger—this casual, indifferent brutality I couldn’t prepare for.

I turned my attention back to my uncle. “I thought you were at church.”

“Sean needed some one-on-one conversation. He’s been experimenting with marijuana. Selling it to his friends. I’m convincing him to stop.”

“Like this?” I asked. From what I could see of Sean’s mouth, the conversation had been one-sided so far, and was likely to stay that way. His lips were mashed and bloody, like the rotten strawberries my mom used to toss down the garbage disposal, and he’d been reduced to making mewling sounds every so often, helpless little noises that made the downy hair on my arms stand straight up. We’d seen fights at school, but this was different: bloody knuckles and swollen faces instead of brief slaps and cries of I-give-up-I-give-up-uncle. The kind of beating that might be doled out behind bars, if your reputation as a boxer reached the ears of your cellmate. I felt my face go white and cold and told myself it was the weather, the brisk eddies of wind that swirled across the bare hilltop, crackling as they burrowed into the dead leaves—anything but the old, familiar fear I’d learned from the sound of my dad’s footsteps on our rotted-out porch and the look on my mom’s face as she’d scurried to their bedroom to count our money: not enough, never enough to keep us safe.

My uncle shrugged, broad shoulders under a plaid shirt tucked neatly into brown slacks. “The angel wrestled with Jacob.”

And Jacob won, I thought, but I didn’t respond. Neither did Danny.

My uncle turned his attention to the ground in front of him, where the cross’s flickering light made patterns on the dead leaves. “Sean says he needs the money,” he said with a hint of regret, as if maybe, for a moment, he’d become unsure. No one in our neighborhood ever talked about it—when someone mentioned my uncle, it was always his promising teenage boxing years or his service to the church—but it was simple enough to assume he hadn’t been Scrooge McDuck-ing his way through a swimming pool of dollar bills, either. For a moment, I imagined my uncle at eighteen, hungry and fierce-fisted, with no one who was big enough or who loved him enough to beat sense into him except, eventually, God. “He has decent grades,” my uncle continued. “Decent potential, and he’s trying to sell it away.”

Off to my left, Danny shuffled his sneakers. Even from a foot away, I felt the rigidity of his body. In the cross’s eerie yellow glow, his skin lost its golden hue; he became as immobile and diseased-looking as the statues we’d stumbled across during our climb. It was like watching a penny decay: the slow, irreversible dulling of the copper, something good and valuable losing its protective shine.

At the base of the cross, Sean struggled to move. He pressed his back against the cross’s frame and scrabbled his legs across the concrete. It looked like the act of breathing hurt him. I felt a small surge of satisfaction, remembering how the rush of flushing toilet water had yanked at my scalp and soaked my nostrils with leftover shit. I’d flailed my arms. Sean still hadn’t released me. In that instant, with my held breath beating against my lungs and my blood pulsing against my temples, I’d missed my dad—the only time, before or since, that I’ve ever mourned his absence.

My uncle turned in time to see Sean’s efforts. He grabbed Sean by the front of his shirt and lifted him to his feet. It was like watching Danny’s kid sister pick up one of her floppy dolls. “Sean, are you trying to leave us?” he asked. “Do you think we’re finished with our conversation?”

Sean made a noise that could have been yes or, just as easily, no. Blood bubbled up from his mouth and leaked down his chin; when he tried to suck it back in, he started choking.

My uncle shook his head. “It seems you haven’t learned your lesson about defiance,” he said. His voice was sad. “As it says in Romans chapter thirteen, verses one and two, ‘There is no authority except from God, and those who resist will incur judgment.’” And then he raised his hand and struck Sean across the face with a perfectly formed boxer’s fist.

Sean’s jaw cracked. The back of his head bounced off the long, straight arm of the cross. Still, he tried to fight back. He raised his hands, palms out, and shoved my uncle groggily in the chest, just hard enough to knock him off-balance. “Leggo of me,” he slurred.

My uncle let go. Sean’s knees buckled, but he didn’t collapse, not completely. He swung a hand behind him until he felt the cross, grasped at its edge to steady himself. It was painful to watch: my uncle breathing hard, wiping a palm along his thigh, fuming down at Sean like Jesus after he’d finished with the moneylenders. As if there was something worth saving in Sean, some demon he could shake loose so that Sean would turn out law-abiding and penitent. It wasn’t right, but it was righteous, and watching my uncle’s face soften and then harden again, I began to understand why the neighborhood boys let him knock them around during those sparring lessons in the church basement. No one had ever believed in me with that kind of ferocity.

I looked away from both of them, back toward where we’d come from. Danny had turned his head, too, and together we watched the lights come on across Waterbury. I hadn’t realized it until then, but it made sense: if you could see the cross from everywhere in the city, it stood to reason that you could see everywhere in the city from the cross. It was kind of beautiful, in a stupid way. If you let your vision go loose, you could pretend that each of the lights was an angel’s halo, at least until you remembered that the type of angels that wore rinky-dink flickering haloes were the type of angels that only little kids believed in. Until you remembered that all over Waterbury, there were halo-lights left in darkness because people couldn’t afford to pay their electric bills.

I wondered if Danny was conjuring the same memories I was, of the times our moms had gotten together to smoke a joint over the course of a powerless night. How my mom’s body had finally untensed, how she’d stroked my hair. How Danny’s mom would find old birthday candles and light them with the end of the joint, giggling all the while. How the lack of electricity hid the scrapes Danny and I had collected from afternoons roughhousing on the sidewalk and the deeper, darker bruises I worked hard to cover in the daytime, concealing them from Danny’s eyes.

“Jamie,” my uncle said. He had one of his big hands pressed up against Sean’s shoulder, pinning him to the cross. Sean’s head hung crookedly. “Come on. Help me out here.”

And suddenly, I wanted to. God, I wanted to. It came on as surprising and primal as a first erection, some basic force of nature that sometimes overtakes me even now, when I’m driving behind a particularly slow car on the expressway or when a pretty woman at the Barley Corn Bar tells me she has a boyfriend even though I know she’s as single as they come. What had my parents left me, after all? Sticks and stones and a broken city built on the back of a dying brass industry, black eyes and nightmares, Heaven and Hell. I wanted to feel the crunch of bone on bone. I wanted to wake up the next morning with lumps across my knuckles. I was my uncle’s nephew. I was my dad’s son. It was my inheritance. Even godly men have their vices.

I took a step forward. A hand on my elbow pulled me back.

“Jamie,” Danny said. “Jamie, don’t listen to him. Don’t do it. Don’t.”

Danny had been the one to find me that humiliating morning, after Sean had swirled and half-drowned me in the church toilet. I’d been surprised to see him there, since this was long past the day I’d told him to quit coming around; later, I found out that it had been one of those Sundays when the congregation had been on a feed-the-less-fortunate kick. Although we’d never said it out loud, I’d promised to overlook Danny’s presence in the food line, and he’d promised to pretend he hadn’t found me hunched over and sobbing in a men’s room, scrabbling my hands through my hair to scrape the waste off my body.

This, though, was something he wouldn’t be able to ignore. He didn’t have to say it. It was the way he held his body. He was on the balls of his feet now—that seeming impermanence back at work—but it wasn’t my uncle he was preparing to run away from. It was me.

“You won the dare, Jamie,” Danny said. His eyes glowed huge in the amber light of the cross. “You’re not chicken.”

“Okay,” I said. I didn’t look at my uncle. “Okay. Let’s go.”


We ran. To this day, I think it’s the fastest I’ve ever run. It was easy enough to picture what would happen if I stopped or tried to hide; I had only to remember the ways my dad had found me, in my desperate attempts to scoot under my bed or barricade myself in the hall closet, and what he’d done about it. My uncle was a man of God, more Old Testament than New, and we were in Holy Land. A hand around our necks, a fist to our throats, and we’d belong to that thick, wet, dead smell as we added our decay to the leaves. So we ran.

My breath came in bursts, great puffs streaking the air, and this time I tried not to think about my uncle’s cigarettes—my uncle, who I heard come crashing through the brush behind us until the crashing stopped. At some point, I lost track of Danny. There were too many other relics to dodge and hurdle: the half-broken face of a sphinx, a mosaic of Jesus resurrected, except that the tiles had grayed over with moss and his eyes had been chipped out, giving him that undead, zombie look I’d once imagined for my parents. A branch snagged my jeans. Roughed-over stones from the remains of fake Bethlehem scraped my palms. I ran faster. I didn’t stop until I reached Slocum Street, which seemed strangely, ethereally normal after the landscape of Holy Land.

“Danny?” I called. My breath came in huge, overwhelming gulps, catching in my throat, and I doubled over to hush the cramp that seized my side. “Danny? Where are you?”

A lamp in one of the Slocum houses flicked on and then back off. A few yards away, a dog started to bark. Further down the street, silhouettes moved into yellow-lit windows to see what the fuss was, but no one came outside, and the lights hadn’t illuminated any sign of Danny, golden and shining.

As I waited, I thought of Sean’s pulped face, of Danny’s hand on my elbow, of the way I’d backed down. To Danny, maybe, it had mattered, but not to me: I’d shown my hand the moment I’d stayed too long, in that brief, curdling nanosecond I’d let my cruelty get the best of me. Danny could reappear on Slocum Street, shaken and subdued and a little less golden, and I could fool myself into thinking that nothing had changed, but I knew I’d never again dream of a white-collar job and a suburban life outside of Waterbury, no matter how badly I wanted it. Instead, I’d wake up the next morning to my uncle’s smile and I’d smile back, my lips curling into something close to a fist. He’d hand me a cigarette and I’d accept it without comment, and later, when I’d toss my report card onto the stretch of table between us, it would be a challenge: he’d roll up his sleeves and crack his knuckles and contemplate my face, and we’d swap smiles again, knowing that this time, neither of us would be gentle on the other.

The thought was enough to knock my knees out from under me.

I found the metal post of a chain link fence and slumped against it, facing the entrance to the park, counting the seconds. I watched as Holy Land settled into itself. A cloud passed over the moon, and the slouched-over, peeled-paint houses faded into darkness; on top of the hill, only the cross still glowed. I waited for Danny to stride out from under the stone gate, that smirk on his face, so that we could slink back to his parents’ house, collapse on the floor of his bedroom, and talk about how sweet Ms. Rossi’s perfume smelled, so that I could let him ask all the questions he wanted to about my parents, so that we could pretend things were normal again for the duration of just one more night.

“Danny, come on out!” I yelled. “I dare you!”

But Danny Kane had run into God’s blind spot. He was gone.

Rachael Warecki holds a Master of Fine Arts in fiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles ReviewThe Masters ReviewMidwestern Gothic, and elsewhere. She has been selected for residencies at the Wellstone Center and Ragdale and is the current fiction editor of The Nervous Breakdown. She lives in Los Angeles and is at work on a novel.  

Book Review: Joe Hill’s “Strange Weather”

By: Xach Fromson

Joe Hill is no stranger to short fiction. His short story credits go back twenty years and includes the 2005 collection 20th Century Ghosts. After last year’s incendiary success with The Fireman, Hill returns to the form with Strange Weather, a collection of four short novels offering a panoramic view of humanity in scenarios that range from the fantastical to the all too real. Across all four stories, Hill excels at immersing readers in a full sensory experience that takes readers on unique journeys. The tightly written prose wastes no time in ratcheting up the tension, foregoing any trappings of the slow-build, existential horror in favor of rapid-fire pacing that never lets up.

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