Coyote by Nicki Orser

Coyote | Nicki Orser

Sometimes it’s hard to look at the big picture of your life, of our lives together for the past seventeen years. Mostly, I see snapshots. Like the one when we’d taken apart your bed to rearrange your room and there was a message scrawled in sharpie on the underside of the frame in your eight-year-old hand: Dad gave my brother five dollars and I wish I was dead.

I laughed when I saw it, not on purpose, but because it was so dramatic. I laughed at the ridiculousness of where it had been written, the spelling, the childish script. I guess I had laughed at the fact that it had been hidden for the past five years and we hadn’t even known it was there.

Two years later, at fifteen, when you really did want to be dead and you tried to kill yourself, I was in shock.

When it happened again at seventeen, I was blind-sided once more. Not that there hadn’t been problems in the months leading up: the new crescents covering your arms – never too deep, hidden almost always beneath long sleeves; the vape pens and lighters I’d found in your backpack; the battle we faced most mornings when it was time for you to leave for school.

In January, you’d blacked out on your bedroom floor in a pile of laundry after drinking half a bottle of vodka.

“Hey,” I’d called, pushing against your bedroom door which was blocked by your trash can. “Hey, are you in there?” I said again before shoving it open and seeing you on the floor.I shook you, gently at first, then more frantically. When you didn’t move, I slapped your cheeks, the way people do when they’re about to fall asleep while driving, until you finally stirred.

I lifted you in a makeshift fireman drag, like the one I’d seen a friend do while practicing for the police academy exam, and pulled you onto your bed. You seemed just as heavy, the same dead weight, as the bag used to simulate an injured body that my friend had dragged around that dusty field during her test years ago.I turned your head to the side in case you were sick, and stood at the foot of your bed.

Not the same bed as the childhood message, although it would have been nice if we could have had it all spelled out: “I’m D-R-U-N-K” or “I’m S-A-D” or “I’m in T-R-O-U-B-L-E.”

In February, I sat with you in the vice principal’s office as she laid out the contents of your backpack on the floor in front of us. She’d typed up a helpful list and included it with your suspension paperwork: one nicotine vape pen, one canister of nicotine vape juice, one nicotine vape pod, marijuana, one grinder shaped like Rubik’s Cube with marijuana residue, rolling papers, marijuana joints, one pipe with marijuana residue, one lighter, six cigarettes, and pepper spray. PPD Incident # PE 22-672.

In the weeks after the suspension, when you’d started working with your counselor, Martin, I thought things were getting better. You looked tiny next to him, the former nose tackle who had traded in his NFL career to coach football at the junior college and mentor teens at the local high schools to keep them out of juvie. Working with him had let you avoid a criminal record for bringing drugs to school and it seemed like things might be turning around.

Yes, I know I always say that, but that’s why I was surprised when I saw the cops parked in front of our house after I pulled into our driveway that night, exactly one month after your suspension. I was afraid to open the car door, thinking, Oh shit. What now?

“Your daughter is around the corner,” the officer began.

“Son,” I said.

“They’re with one of our officers,” he continued, “and appear to be intoxicated.”

I assumed I would take you home, put you in your bed, and wait for you to sober up, but the cop was insistent that I take you to the ER, that something was terribly wrong. He suspected some kind of overdose.


My mother and I had both had our spells of sadness over the years, as had your grandmother, your great grandmother, and probably many of the grandmothers before. The Dark Place, I’d heard it called.

While your great-great-great-grandmother’s last episode had landed her dead on her kitchen floor with her head in an oven, the darkness had lightened some over the generations. My mother’s depression seemed more of a muted brown when she died, the color of her nicotine-stained walls. I liked to think mine resembled a dusky beige, like what you’d find on a paint swatch at Home Depot, the kind you could browse while contemplating freshening up the walls of a laundry room.

I’d hoped by the time it hit you, there’d be hardly any darkness left.

In movies people kill themselves by taking pills, but it’s not as easy as it looks on TV. At least it didn’t work for me, either time I had tried it, and luckily not for you.

When I was a teen, no one told me my great grandmother had hung herself, and it wasn’t until years later that I learned that my grandmother had stopped taking her heart medication because she, according to my Aunt Sue, was just too tired to live anymore.

I’m not sure that it would have made a difference, knowing all that. I doubt it would have made me any less depressed, but it might have saved a decade or two of shame, knowing I wasn’t alone.

It’s hard to know what finally did help with my depression, I’d tried so many things over the years. Getting sober in my twenties was a start, searching out therapists who did EMDR and somatic therapies also made a big difference. Another part of my recovery was starting a writing group and getting all my crazy thoughts on paper. That was when I was really able to see the patterns in my family through all of those generations; that was when I began to realize that it wasn’t completely my fault. I wasn’t a bad person trying to get good, just a sick person trying to get well. Having you and your brother was the biggest motivator of all.

Knowing that the two of you were depending on me forced me to keep trying. More than anything, I wished I could figure out how to save you from the same kind of pain that I’d gone through, but it seemed like you would have to learn it through your own experience.


While in the hospital waiting room, I took advantage of your intoxication and quizzed you on what you had taken. You were unusually talkative in this state even though I couldn’t make out everything you were saying. I tricked you into giving me the password on your phone: 1 2 3 4 5 6. Really, kid?

I scrolled through your texts and tried to piece together what had happened, while simultaneously redirecting you each time you announced you thought we should leave. We walked over to a Dasani machine, I bought us each a bottle of water, and you told me about the alcohol you had hidden in your room and the package of Benadryl you had taken a few hours earlier.

When I Googled Benadryl overdose, I learned there had been some kind of Benadryl Challenge happening on TikTok, where teenagers filmed their recollections of hallucinating after taking large doses of the drug. I wasn’t sure if you had taken the Benadryl because you knew it wouldn’t show up on the home drug tests we had been forcing you to do. I didn’t know if you had used it to get high or if you knew that taking a large dose could be fatal.


When your dad arrived at the hospital, we’d agreed that one of us would always stay with you, that we would visit in shifts. We didn’t want to leave your brother home alone all night and the hospital was restricting the number of people in the ER because of COVID.

When I arrived back at the hospital, around four in the morning, you were wearing a gown and your arm was strapped down. You kept spasming and flailing and had pulled your IV out once already. You had an IV of Ativan in one arm and a blood pressure cuff on the other, plus a dozen EKG leads stuck to various parts of your body. The nurse explained that the electrocardiogram would record the electrical signals of your heart and sound an alarm when something was off.

I wished I had read the signals of your heart; if I had, maybe we wouldn’t have been in this situation.

Because you were twitching so much and your eyes looked so crazy, you reminded me of someone from The Walking Dead when they were transitioning from human to zombie. You seemed like a little frail zombie though, not a dangerous one, and I couldn’t help petting your zombie head, and your crazily matted zombie hair.

You had been awake for almost 24 hours straight now, if you counted the morning of school that day, which had happened a million years before.

I texted your dad another update: He’s twitching and can’t talk right. I think he can sometimes understand me though.

“Can people overdose on Ativan?” I asked the nurse. “It seems like you’re giving him a lot.”

“This is protocol in these kinds of cases,” she said.

It seemed unfathomable that there could be other cases like yours.

You were pulling things from the air and putting them into your mouth. Sometimes you would hand me one and I would pretend to eat it.

“Yum,” I said, thinking I hope this is a strawberry and not a spider.

You tried standing up in your bed a lot but I found if I rubbed your hair softly the way TV moms do, the way I would have liked my mother to have done, I could get you to lie back down and settle you pretty quickly.

We went through that scene on repeat all night. You’d sit up, try to stand from your bed, the alarm on your IV or heart monitor would go off, and I would coax you back into a lying position, push the hair back on your forehead, and distract you while an attendant shut off the alarm. After the fifth or sixth time, they just showed me how I could turn the alarm off myself so the nurse wouldn’t have to keep coming in every few minutes.

It felt like we were communicating even though you couldn’t speak. It felt like I was sending you messages through mental telepathy.

I love you. It’s ok. You’re going to be ok. We’ll be home soon. That last one was a lie and I figured if you could read my mind, hear my thoughts, you could probably also tell when my thoughts were lying, so I’d try to quickly correct myself. I think we will be ok.

Around 1:00 that afternoon, your dad came to switch places and your doctor let us both stay with you for a bit, then pulled us aside to tell us that she had gone through a similar thing with her own child when she was a teen.

“You’re going to get through this,” she said. “It is possible for things to turn around. My own daughter is living proof.”

She recommended a book to read and said we were doing a good job even though that was clearly a lie. She said we just needed to make it through these terrible teen years, that things could get better.

She wasn’t patronizing or condescending like the psychiatrist we’d been working with for the last several months. She wasn’t menacing like the nurse who’d checked you’d in the night before, the one who’d tried to bully you into holding still by threatening to take your temperature rectally if you wouldn’t keep the regular thermometer in your mouth. She didn’t seem clueless about addiction and didn’t judge us for having problems. She didn’t rush off after making her rounds even though the ER was crowded with sick patients and nurses in scrubs rushing from curtained room to curtained room.

Instead, she pulled us aside and talked to us. Of all of the doctors and nurses and nursing assistants and hospital guards and therapists and substance abuse counselors and social workers and transgender specialists and psychiatrists and medical staff that we had dealt with over the last few years, this doctor was the first to really give me any hope.


Around 2:45 on Thursday afternoon, the EMTs arrived to transfer you to the Kaiser ER in Marin. It had been nearly twenty hours in the ER now, about the same amount of time it took to start and stall in labor before having an emergency C-section the day you were born.

After spending the next day with you in the new ER, it started to feel like I was making a cosmic shift somehow because I was getting kind of good at taking care of you, even, dare I say, good at being a mom.

I had spent my whole life feeling guilty about how bad I was at that, at being a mom, at taking care of people. I have an inner Nurse Ratched voice that thinks mean thoughts whenever someone is sick or starts to complain too much.

When you or your brother would stay home sick, I would start out saintly at first, bringing you orange juice or Tylenol, reminding you to let me know if you needed anything. But give it a few hours and I’d be thinking shut up and drink your stupid juice. Or shut up and go to sleep. You’re not that sick, just go to school. And Dear god, please shut the fuck up and leave me alone.

But in the hospital, it started to feel really different. I started to feel really different.

I texted your dad around nine that Thursday night to let him know that they were moving you to the Telemetry Unit, room 302, in a wing of the ICU.

You finally fell asleep, just after midnight Friday night, after being awake for more than forty hours. Of course, as soon as you fell asleep, the nurse came in and announced she needed to give you a new IV. You were sleeping on your stomach at the time and she had to lift your arm at a weird angle to reach the crook where the old IV was situated, leaking blood, and not delivering medication effectively. She missed the vein on the first try and switched to the other arm to look for a better one. It took her two more attempts before she was successful and you slept through all three punctures.


Your dad came to the hospital early Friday morning to change shifts. I’d parked across the street from the hospital the day before, next to a field full of hairy vetch and wild lupine. The grass had seemed bright the day before with shocks of purple, but that morning everything was pretty gray.

My eyes were adjusting to the change between the hospital room and the outdoor light when I saw a stray dog near my car. I looked around for its owner but as I got closer and got a better look at it, I realized it was a coyote.

He was just standing there on the sidewalk as though he was waiting for me. We looked at each other for a second and I reached for my phone to try to snap a picture of him, but in the moments it took to enter my code and click on the camera icon, he had trotted off, disappearing into the early morning fog.

There are legends about coyotes. Some Native tribes considered them mythical creatures. Some believed they could linger between the land of the living and the spirit world, that they were mediators between life and death. I guess that might explain what he was doing hanging around a hospital.


When I returned to your room in the early afternoon, you were awake and had no memory of the past two days. You didn’t remember the police or the hallucinations.

You had no memory of the deep bond we’d forged the nights before. I wondered if you would at least feel it subconsciously, the way they say coma patients do, but it didn’t seem like you did.

We would spend another twenty-four hours in the Telemetry Unit waiting for a room to open up at a treatment place somewhere, an adolescent facility that had a private room to accommodate a trans teen. Your dad and I debated back and forth, trying to decide whether you should go to a hospital or substance abuse rehab center. We didn’t have much say since we were at the mercy of the insurance company, what they would authorize and pay for, and what the psychiatrist on duty deemed the best plan.

When we finally did get a chance to talk to the psychiatrist after lunch, she wasn’t on board with our ideas of rehab.“We’ll be transferring him to Willow Rock, an adolescent facility in San Leandro,” she said.

They didn’t allow visitors during the assessment period but she said we could call you anytime. She handed me a post-it with their website and I looked it up on my phone and scrolled through the pages, reading their philosophy: “Recovery involves living a meaningful life with the capacity to love and be loved.”

The EMTs pulled in just after two that afternoon, and we hugged you goodbye one more time before they wheeled you away on the stretcher.

“We’ll call you as soon as you get there,” I said. “You’ll probably get there faster than we’ll even get home.”

We stood in the parking lot and waved, but I’m not sure if you could see us. We couldn’t see you through the mirrored back window but we waved anyway until the ambulance pulled onto Monticello Road, then we each walked toward our cars.

“See you at home,” your dad said, and I nodded.

When I got to my car, I remembered the coyote. Had it shown up next to me the morning after you could have died because he knew I needed a sign or because he knew it wasn’t your time? The doctor in Petaluma had repeated how serious this was, how this could have gone so much worse: “Kids have died from these kinds of overdoses,” she had said. “We were so lucky.”

I hoped you could be like the coyote: no matter how scrappy or tattered he got, he’d find a way to survive. The superstitious part of me wanted to believe that the coyote, and that particular doctor, had both been placed there on purpose, that they were there to bring us some kind of comfort, maybe even some luck.

Something had alerted the neighbor who had found you to call the police on the night of your overdose. Something urged the police officer to insist I take you to the emergency room. And something had changed in me during those nights in the hospital together. Whether it was medicine or magic that had kept you alive, I was willing to accept the help, from wherever we could get it.

Coyote by Nicki Orser was selected as the runner-up of the 2023 HoneyBee Prize in Nonfiction by Hugh Reilly. Here’s what Mr. Reilly had to say about the piece:

“Coyote” dealt with the tragic epidemic of suicide among trans teens. This timely story explores the love between mother and child and the toll societal pressures place on families.  The language was spare and powerful. The anecdotes were authentic and helped to lead the story to a memorable conclusion. I particularly enjoyed the use of the coyote as a metaphor. I have long had a passion for Native American culture and history and the inclusion of the “trickster” coyote in the story gave it an ethereal flavor. 

More about the author:

Nicki Orser, a Nebraska native, completed her MFA at San Francisco State University where she was the recipient of the Joe Brainard Creative Writing Fellowship. Her work has appeared in Dunes Review, The American River Review, and Susurrus. She lives in Northern California with her two sons.

micro monday micro nonfiction nonfiction

Clothes Rack by Niles Reddick

Clothes Rack | Niles Reddick

The Sears store was cold compared to the hundred degrees temperature and humidity outside in inland Florida where the coastal breezes cease, and Mom was lured there after receiving the sales circular in the mail. I had eaten my gummy bears and fidgeted with the clothes on the rack.

“Leave the clothes alone,” she said. “Play with your cars.”

 “Are you almost finished?”

“No,” she said, pulling a hanger with a dress from the metal retail rack, holding the dress on the hanger just below her chin, looking at it in the floor-length mirror on the wall, putting it back on the rack, and scraping groups of hangers with dresses to the next one she liked.

“I’m ready for the Happy Meal,” I tugged on her clam diggers.

“If you don’t stop your ants in the pants, you’ll eat fried liver for lunch.” She shooed me away like the gnats we fanned when outside. 

I crawled on all fours to the center of the rack, imagined it a teepee, sat with my legs crossed, my spine lined with the stainless-steel totem pole, and watched my mom move clockwise around the rack, her clogs stepping like the slow dances on Lawrence Welk. I rolled my cars, parked them in a lot, whispered invitations to imaginary drivers about a race, and then sped the cars and drivers until they crashed.

What I didn’t know was that my mom didn’t know where I had gone, called my name, and ran to the cashier’s counter.  Salesclerks fanned out, and the manager made an announcement over the intercom.  Something brought me back from the race, and I saw clogs, reached through the dresses, and pulled on Mom’s pants. The lady screamed, and one of the clerks came, pushed the clothes on the rack, and saw me.

“Come out of there, boy.”

Mom ran over when she heard the commotion. “You about gave me a heart attack.” She yanked me by the arm, and I dropped my Porsche.

She turned to the lady shopping. “I’m sorry he scared you.”

“It’s alright,” she said, fanning herself.

“I can’t take you nowhere.”

“What about my Happy Meal?”

“Ain’t nothing happy about the meal you’ll get when I get you home.” 

About the Author:

Niles Reddick is author of a novel, two collections, and a novella. His work has been featured in over 450 publications including The Saturday Evening Post, PIF, New Reader Magazine, Forth Magazine, Citron Review, and The Boston Literary Magazine. He is a three time Pushcart and two time Best Micro nominee and works for the University of Memphis. His newest flash collection If Not for You has just been published by Big Table Publishing.


Twitter: @niles_reddick

micro monday micro nonfiction nonfiction

The Waiting Room by Allie Griffith

The Waiting Room | Allie Griffith

In the hospital waiting room, we harmonize as we wait. A woman clutches an emesis bag to her lips, setting the rhythm: short, rapid breaths in and out — a whoosh then crinkle of plastic. A boy coughs in wet, staccato bellows. Half-asleep in her wheelchair, a woman chants, “I used to live in Fairlawn, Ohio,” to no one and everyone. On cue, the man on the phone next to me segues into the bridge, “‘What do you do for me?’ Bitch, I pay bills.” A moan, sneeze, hiccup. A cell phone alarm and groan.

A sign on the wall: Please note that emergency room patients are called back according to priority level based on medical history and current condition, not arrival time. 

I weigh my mortality against the sounds in the waiting room, listening for the most pressing diagnosis. Which cough is Level 3 (“Urgent”)? Which whimper is Level 4 (“Semi-Urgent”)?

In the seventh hour, the waiting room reaches capacity. Our melody crescendos into a desperate requiem, a spiritual polyphonic score that stops time. Coughs become battle cries and moans mark last wishes. A teenager paces up and down the aisle, yanks at his hair. We have transcended South Bend, Indiana and have arrived in purgatory. 

I sigh, softly. My own symptoms (sharp abdominal pain, fever) have muted and I start to wonder why I am here. I want to transpose the entire song, offer up my revisions to the composer.

About the Author:

Allie Griffith is a writer living in the Midwest and an MFA student at Antioch University.


The Truth About My Old Haunts by Elizabeth Collis

The Truth About My Old Haunts | Elizabeth Collis


I lived in this house between the ages of four and seven.

For the past fifty-four years, I have not been near this area of England.

I’m sixty-one, which means I haven’t seen this house since my family moved from it.

I visit this place often. These visits are involuntary.


As childhood things always seem to, the house has shrunk since I was seven.

These features are smaller than when I was a child (from what I can glimpse from the road—I dare not step on the property—there’s a barking guard dog and security cameras and ‘Private Property’ notices): 

Apple orchard, neatly rowed vegetable garden, riotous flower beds, juice green lawns, bitter-lemon privet hedges, sentinel poplar trees, fish pond circled with a low brick wall.


Menace pressures the inside of the house’s three doors, ready to burst out: the fortress front door we never used, the back one on the shady side, also never used, the black kitchen door warmed by the West sun, always used, always open, to release a girl from house to garden.

The house is riddled with evil.

The garden is heavenly, sweet-pea fragrant with joy.

The house is haunted. 

Or the house haunts. 

Or I haunt the house.

The garden is a refuge.

Or the garden protected child me from the house.

Or I was a child with a vivid imagination.


The house name, ‘Inverarnold’, has peppered my consciousness awake and dreaming this past half century, but I don’t know the exact address, only that it was two or three orchards away from the village of Leeds in Southern England, in the rural county of Kent. So my husband and I, on a nostalgia visit from Canada, park our rental car on the narrow road twisting through Leeds village, opposite a residence named ‘The Old Store’. It used to be a shop where I bought my penny sweets with Saturday pocket money. There’s a pub, playing field, stone church. Low, black-beamed Elizabethan cottages. It’s peaceful, bucolic.

Once I find the former store, I know how to get to the house.

“Across the road, up there,” I say, pointing to a field with a wooden fence and a border of sycamore trees, “there’s a footpath on the other side of that hedge.”

I’m right. A narrow passage tucked between empty meadows, canopied by rustling branches and delineated by thick hedgerow dotted with white cowslips, pink-red campions balanced on downy stems, and purple woundwort. Same path, same wildflowers, same trees. All as it used to be. I laugh at the familiarity, at the wonder of my adult feet connecting to the same path my child feet skipped along so long ago.

Except the orchards have changed. They grow cherries now, not apples. The trees are small, in tight rows, shrouded with bird netting wrapped on metal hoops. Umbilical cords of water and nutrition lines connect each sapling with the earth. We reach the far side of the last orchard, and an informational sign headed ‘Arnold Farms’ explains that modern fruit farming is very different from traditional cultivation. The information doesn’t lessen my disappointment, which settles, aching, in my arthritic toes. I spent a lot of happy childhood time in the old orchards.

The Arnolds were wealthy landowners long before my family lived in their house. They’d built the home on a corner of their farmland, where country lanes between villages formed a crossroads. In all four directions—agriculture. Apple, cherry and plum orchards, strawberry and hop fields, a chicken farm, beyond them grazing fields for sheep, then villages.

Inverarnold, a mock-Tudor house built in the nineteen twenties or thirties, still scowls beneath a heavy roof, still looks clandestine when we reach it on foot. Three storeys high, dark-timbered, white-walled, sharp-gabled, it sits enclosed with tall hedges and borders of giant whispering poplar trees in the middle of nowhere. In 1965, it was nowhere anyone wanted to live.


My father signed a three-year lease for the house at a ridiculously low rate.

Mrs. Arnold was killed when her car crashed into the ditch in front of Inverarnold returning from a party a few months before we moved in. Neck broken, snap. 

No local would rent the place, no babysitter babysit, no cleaner help my mother. Only the ancient gardener, Mr. Sears, too near haunting himself to bother about ghosts, tended the enormous vegetable garden twice a week. He rarely entered the house, and with his liver-spotted hands, bent back, and shabby brown gardening coat, he was more flora than a person who lived under a roof.

The house was fully equipped with the Arnold’s furniture, linens and decorations. Mrs. Arnold’s adult son had locked some things in the study, but otherwise rented the place as it was the day his mother died.

There were portraits of Mrs. Arnold dressed in ball gowns on the walls and in desk drawers.

Her hair was incendiary red, her eyes forget-me-not blue.

When a landlord locks things in a ground-floor room but doesn’t draw the curtains, the tenant children will haul themselves up on the windowsill, peer through the dirty diamond-paned window, and believe they see ghosts.


The portraits of the dead house owner were good enough that her eyes followed us.

The man driving the car was her lover.

The man driving the car was her ex-husband.

The man driving the car was her murderer.


Fear, misery, love, desire for vengeance are emotions strong enough to worm their way into the bowels of a house, coil into the walls, lurk in the long dim corridor shadows, fester at the back of musty cupboards and bedroom dresser drawers, secret themselves in the Gothic folds of blood-red velvet curtains.

Or a curious child can let the malignancy out through the conduit of her mind.

Or instead of being passively haunted by ghosts, a house can be the active haunter.


Forbidden to explore outside the garden boundary alone, I did anyway. I hated being in the house, needed to be outside. My rubber boots squished into cool soil as I navigated the clumpy ridges of plowed fields. My tramping disturbed the thrushes, pretty yellowhammers and trilling linnets profiting from insects upturned by the plow.

The area was so rural I never met anyone unless it was harvest time. Then, I’d stay out of the orchards with their cidery scent of fermenting apples for fear of the fruit pickers; quick-moving gypsies and coarse-mouthed East-End Londoners. They were unsettling, alien, their Cockney and traveller accents impossible to follow. In the heat of late August, their scruffy children played on the orchard peripheries, around the Beatles declaring “She loves you yeah yeah yeah” through tinny transistor radios and their prone parents taking beer-softened lunch breaks in the shade of a hedge.

Safely on Inverarnold territory, I was summer barefoot. Springy moss under the weeping willow tree cushioned my skinny backside. Its sinewy roots became walls, its canopy the roof. I played houses, fairies, collected sweet dog rose petals to make sticky perfume in jam jars, climbed the old chestnut trees, scraped my legs on their fissured bark, got stuck, got rescued at dusk. My mother didn’t bother looking for me before then, she’d have at least five acres of land to cover. I never returned to the house until I had to.


My eight-year-old sister heard a party going on downstairs one Saturday night, right under her bedroom. Clinking glasses, chatter, laughter, the never-used front door opening and closing, Jerry Lee Lewis sending ‘Great Balls of Fire’ among the guests dancing the Twist, up through the dark wooden ceiling beams, vibrating the legs of her bed.

I imagine she crept along the landing to spy, expecting to see grownups flourishing martini glasses and jiving through whirling cigarette smoke. Instead she found my parents huddled round the living room fireplace, the only source of warmth in the house except the massive cooking range in the kitchen. A damp smudge smell emanated from their woollen sweaters and heavy socks. Pops from the burning fire wood accented the shush-shush sound of them turning the pages of their books.

In the linoleum which loosely covered the stone kitchen floor, Mrs. Arnold’s stiletto heels had left pock marks.


It was me who started the mass panic at my elementary school at age five when I declared the sports pavilion was haunted by a headless monk and led my screaming classmates running to barricade ourselves in our classroom.


My parents never entertained at the house because all invitations were refused.


I learned to read at four and discovered stories, made friends at school (but never had play dates at my house, only theirs), made up outrageous fictions. My mother had been on oxygen in hospital, gravely ill, when my father lit a cigarette and blew them both up. Tragically (I wept as I waited for my mother to pick me up from school), I was now an orphan trapped in a terrifying house. There wasn’t a wicked witch imprisoning me there, the house was the witch. No wonder the other parents didn’t want to make the twelve-mile round trip so their children could interact with me and my crazy home.

The dreams came for me after we moved away, tethering me to the house ever since. I was a middle child by then; my younger sister was born in 1967. My family was three daughters widely spaced in age, one budgerigar, two Dutch rabbits, a father often away for work, and a lonely, scared, exhausted forty-year-old mother who slept with a shotgun under her bed in case of burglars and was convinced the phone was tapped by the Russians. (It was the Cold War era, my father was a nuclear engineer, so she was probably right.) She didn’t hide her distress from my older sister and me. 

My Inverarnold dreams are not nightmares. I’m talking in the present; the dreams still infiltrate my sleep. They’re not blissful either—more a hybrid. Years later, I discovered my mother and older sister also dream about the house. But they’ve never described their dreams. I don’t know if we have the same one.


If we all dream about the house, is the house the instigator?

If we all dream about the house, am I to blame?


By their nature, dreams cannot be false.

In my dream, the garden is a living being. It gives me freedom like it’s handing me the keys to the city. I can wander wherever I want, unlock pleasing secrets and have them rock me in their arms, wander under dappled foliage, touch the waxy white trumpets of woodbine flowers, let them sound out their triumphant news across Kent that this child is at liberty, she may explore wherever she pleases in total security.

Popular trees keep vigil at my side, the tendrils of climbing clematis and trailing honeysuckle soothe me. I nibble nasturtium leaves; they taste of pepper and innocence. While I’m burrowed in tall grass, ladybugs tickle me to giggles. The wild rabbits who feed in the quiet evening ignore me, flip up their white tails and hop away. I am no threat in the garden, nor am I threatened.

In the dream, the house is a living being. At the start, I’m at a cold, unused door. Entering cool grey passageways on the periphery of the house, a palpable beat draws me inward. In my mouth, bitter almond and metal. Threading my hair, cool wisps of air, ephemeral ghost breath.

As I’m pulled to its centre, the house changes colour and temperature like an infrared heat image. The quasar blues and steel greys shift to apple green as I pass through shapeshifting rooms, passageways, tunnels which dimple and adapt to my form. I’m travelling through the house’s limbs, its sinews and arteries. I glimpse buttercup yellow round a corner, and my tongue is clogged with soft egg yolk, my nose filled with sulphur.

Now weak from heat, I wipe sweat from my eyes, but I can’t see for the burnt orange haze around viscous, churning organs which squeeze me forward until I enter with a roar the pulsing blood-red chamber of Inverarnold’s heart.


A door-to-door salesman cursed my pregnant mother when she refused to buy a broom. He was Indian, she thought. He said:

“Curses on you and your unborn child.”

My mother told my older sister and I this in the kitchen after school, a small glass of sherry balanced on her taught baby bump, her one-a-day cigarette held out the open door. Her smoking hand shook. The baby kicked and the sherry sloshed. My father was absent, doing something secret.

The next morning, she told us that her mother (alive and well in Canada) had come to her in a dream that night, and told her not to worry, everything would be alright with the birth, the baby and her.

Mothers are always somewhere near your heart.


Why would a door-to-door salesman travel on foot in an area where the houses are one mile apart?


It’s my heart I’m entering in the house dream. 

My heart is an inferno.

I am evil at heart because I make up tales and tell them.

The house is sentient. 

Or I’m still working out what is heaven and what is hell.


Compelled to see my old home despite the dog, I step off the road onto the driveway. To the right of the garage there’s a new stone wall and then a tennis court replaces the old kennels and garden sheds. Behind the garage, all that is visible of the house is a chimney and third floor dormer windows, the old maids’ quarters where my older sister and I slept in summer.

To the left, a hedge as high as the garage hides the side garden, which I remember being carpeted every year in February with white snowdrops, in March with purple crocuses, then bluebells; like a lava lamp changing hues. I can just glimpse some of the big trees shielding the house: copper birches, ash and oak. Clearly, the house owners still guard their privacy. No wonder the place had a reputation for mystery.

When a dog barks, I scuttle back to the road and follow the line of poplar trees to the orchard, but sights of the property are blocked by greenery.

“I know,” I tell my husband, “there’s another public footpath along the other side. Come on.” I have no idea how I know that—I don’t remember using it. But again, I’m right. At last, we’re able to get views of the house by pushing aside the hedge. I feel furtive, as if I’m on a spy operation.

The house is the same. A familiar excitement-fear makes my heart go pop-pop in my chest. The place is built wicked, badness in its bones. I can’t look away. I want to crouch behind a tree in the garden and do surveillance, like a stalker.


Stalking is a lot like haunting.


A house has a heart.


I don’t want the dreams to stop.

Or this house haunts me.

Or this house is haunted by me.

Or I once lived in a haunted house.

About the Author:

Elizabeth Collis (she/her) is a writer based in Nova Scotia, Canada. Her work has appeared in Progenitor Art and Literary Journal, Tangled Locks Journal, Flash Fiction Magazine, The South Shore Review, and elsewhere. Find more online at and on Twitter @ElizabethCollis

flash nonfiction nonfiction

The Heart and Other Organs by Nancy Jorgensen

The Heart and Other Organs | Nancy Jorgensen

Every Sunday, the same dance. You laced your leather Organmaster shoes, hopped on the bench, and folded back the keyboard’s roll top. Your hands hovered above the keys, shoulder blades forming miniature mountains under your shirt. I joined you on the bench, skimming the scent of your razored jaw. Your hip radiated warm against mine each time I reached for the corner of a page, turning as your hands and feet played the processional.   

The pipe organ is a complicated, 2,000-year-old instrument. Some say that until the telephone, it was the world’s most complex invention. But the cords of love and friendship weave a more intricate tangle. 

We landed at the same church, you the director, me the accompanist. It was the 1970’s. You taught me the organ—its console, stops, pedals, flue pipes, reed pipes, action, wind box. A litany of information you unrolled like a scroll. 

Melodies scampered from your fingertips to the chamber where ranks of pipes huddled in groups: clusters of similar shape, tendency, inclination, and habit. You and I were not in the same rank: me in college, living with my parents, you in a rented flat on the east side, close to bars and baths, village streets, and trendy neighborhoods. You, a single pipe, played only one note and yours was David, or John, or Ernest. Never Jennifer, or Katie, or me. 

One day, you led me to a shadowy corner of the narthex where tilty circular stairs mounted the air. We tiptoed the steps, like a series of half-tones, to the pipes in the loft. There, we studied the swirling configurations, each row taller and wider—the petals of a musical rose. Air clogged my throat, a blossom of myrrh, oak-wood polish, and you. Some pipes were spruce, others an alloy of lead and tin. And I wondered why people couldn’t be alloys too. Fast like brass and soft like copper. One thing and another besides.

The measure of air pushed through a pipe determines volume and timbre. Too much, and the tone is destroyed. Too little, and the sound is lost. It takes restraint to accept the organ as itself, allow the pipes to speak, and refrain from unreasonable demands. 

Visible pipes are often a façade—behind the decoration lies the authentic instrument. Listeners believe the pipes are stacked straight and sure when in fact they form an elaborate maze. 

The case that holds the pipes can be as large as a room. As large as a heart. 

Each Sunday morning, the nave became a ship, rows of shoulders hunched in brown wool coats, dry lips twitching in prayer, watery eyes searching for safe harbor. Every few minutes, towering oak doors revolved on brass hinges, and an icy draft slithered up the walls. At eight o’clock, you opened the organ’s shutters and sank your fingers into a triad. The sound became a river as it oozed from the loft, streamed down the statues, and spilled over the altars. The treble a waterfall. The bass a gorge. Your tenor voice washed the microphone with a hymn that flooded high to the spires and wide to the walls of stained glass. 

A pipe organ is delicate and temperamental. It swells in July’s ninety-degree humidity. It shrinks and shivers during Midnight Mass when temperatures drop and snow drifts the windowsills. Caring for it requires imagination. 

An organ’s metal pipes last for centuries. But leather parts wear out and must be replaced to restore the instrument’s health. If only that were possible for human parts. For men with Kaposi’s sarcoma, lymphoma, AIDS.

A new organ may cost hundreds of thousands for a medium-sized church. Or several million for a cathedral or concert hall. The value of the organist is immeasurable. 

So many preludes, fugues, chansons, nocturnes, intermezzos, cantatas, marches, interludes, meditations. We filled every crevice with the sound of sopranos and altos, trumpets, tambourines, and flutes. But when your lungs collapsed and your skin turned thin, the pipes stood silent, the air stood still. 

From the street, all appeared unchanged: twelve-foot oak doors under a lofty stained-glass rose window and soaring steeple. But inside, melodies hung suspended. 

At your funeral, a lone musician played a requiem, somber fingers traveling in minor. I sensed you in the room, hovering near the console, phantom arms searching for a chord.     

About the Author:

Nancy Jorgensen is a Wisconsin writer, educator, and musician. Her most recent book, a middle-grade/young adult sports biography, was released in 2022: “Gwen Jorgensen: USA’s First Olympic Gold Medal Triathlete.” She is also an essayist writing about music, equality, family, aging, and education. Her work appears in Ruminate, River Teeth, Wisconsin Public Radio, CHEAP POP, and elsewhere. Find out more at


Nocturnal Lagophthalmos by Christi Krug

Nocturnal Lagophthalmos | Christi Krug

At Bethany Faith Temple, there was clapping during the singing, shouting during the clapping, and dancing during the shouting. The golden front pew flickered in a flame of bold souls—people who’d gone to church forever, knew all the verses and when to say Amen. In the slow songs, they raised their hands, closed their eyes, and sang to God. In the fourth row, I stared at the vaulted ceiling where pendant lights hung from sparkling plaster. I fixed my gaze on brass and crystal, raising arms above eyebrows, palms inward. I didn’t shut my eyes.

The people of Bethany Faith Temple—my new family—believed in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which included healing. This woman, Harriet Denham Prix, was a faith healer coming to speak. Marietta told me about it. “She’s healed all kinds of people! Cancer patients, people with heart problems, paralytics who get right out of their wheelchairs and walk!”

One thing about Marietta, she had faith. Maybe that’s why she’d wanted me in the first place. Christian Family Services had a kid available: a pretty decent 12-year-old who tried hard in school, mostly followed the rules, and had lived in one family after another. Marietta decided she and Joe would be the best parents I’d ever had. It was one thing I wanted her to be right about. One thing I was trying hard to believe. 

We were sitting down to lunch, and Marietta slipped me a plate of perfect toasted sandwich halves, bookending rosy apple wedges. “We should invite your mother to church,” she said.

Grilled cheese went gummy in my mouth. This would mean bringing my stumbling, greasy-haired, wool-coated, drab little mother into a place where, after a year and a half with Joe and Marietta, I was finally making a good impression. Darlene Harris, the pastor’s wife, always touched my shoulder, told my new parents how fast I was growing. I got to be in The Shoemaker’s Christmas, my dark hair snowy with baby powder for playing old Mrs. Shoemaker. Before this, grownups didn’t notice me. Except a long time ago. 

“When you were a baby,” Mother said, “you slept with your eyes open, and we would laugh, not knowing if you were asleep or awake.” She smiled. “Oh, how we loved to watch you.”

I looked it up in the Encyclopedia Britannica, and the reason babies sleep with eyes open is because their brains are developing in REM sleep—nocturnal lagophthalmos it’s called. But maybe, in my case, I just wanted to know what was going on. 

What was going on now was Marietta inviting Mother to a faith healer. 

Bad enough that I didn’t know what a faith healer was. I’d read the Bible all the way through, spoken in tongues, been baptized. On TV, faith healers were hyper, dressy people on platforms with scads of crowds. It was all I could picture.

“Just think what it would be like if your mother was healed!” Marietta said. 

Mother would get freaked out by the jouncy music and pushy talk. At the altar call, she would stumble into the church aisle, eyes wide, a hand quivering at her forehead, like when she was hearing voices. Healing or no healing, Mother was at best worried. At worst, ranting and hallucinating. 

Most dreaded of all, if she was faith-healed, I was sure I would have to live with her again.

Marietta was the one who ironed creases into my jeans. Cut and feathered my hair. Kept a bathroom with sage-scented shampoo for me to use and velvety guest towels for me not to. Drove me to youth group. For the first time, I had a life like other kids—in a clean, happy house.

After school Wednesday, church night, Marietta greeted me with a smile, her short auburn hair shining in the daylight windows. The curtains were open and two tabbies curled on chairs, two Great Danes bounded in the backyard, and even the house spider plants dangled their tails in delight.

I had learned not to cry myself to sleep for missing Mother. I had learned how to fold towels, smooth my bedspread over a fluffed pillow, brush my teeth every morning and evening. I was ashamed of all I was never taught, afraid of what I might never learn. How to make people like me, want me, keep me. To make my own good family some day. The last thing I wanted was everyone seeing the very worst thing about Christy Penney: the mother I came from.

Marietta nodded and smiled. “This is so-o-o exciting!” She and God were a team, and if she thought God needed to faith-heal Mother, then certainly God must think so, too. I felt shaky, weak. I couldn’t tell Marietta what a bad idea this was.

She reached for the phone. “Mrs. Penney? Can you join us at church?” 

Mother would be murmuring, “Oh my. This week?” and protesting that she didn’t have anything to wear.

“Come as you are!” said Marietta. 

Then Marietta was repeating Mother’s address and writing it down in her gigantic, confident, loopy hand. My breath caught in a knot in my sternum. 

Mother lived at Mercer Inn, a halfway house in a creepy, crumbling old building in downtown Seattle. Joe had picked her up a couple of times. I had gone in to get her, confronted by dazed residents sitting like barnacles on ripped red vinyl chairs in a hot, smoke-filled lobby that burned my eyes and turned my stomach. Now my mind reeled with horrific moments, there and elsewhere, of Mother slow-stomping to school conferences, choking on her food at Thanksgiving dinners, saying stupid things when I brought a friend over to play. 

Wednesday night came quick. Marietta and I got in the car; Joe was working late driving his Washington State Patrol car. We rolled down the freeway, exiting downtown. My stomach clenched. How could I stop this? I had no choice but to pray to the same God everyone else was praying to. God, please don’t let my mother come to the meeting and get faith-healed.

The brown Ford Pinto wound through downtown streets, a left, a right, a lurch to a stop sign. With a tomato-red nail, Marietta touched the paper with the directions. “Pike . . . Pine . . . Boylston. Oh crap, it’s a one-way!” A U-turn in a parking lot, a circle around the block. “It’s supposed to be right here!” Minutes of frustration ticked into half an hour, forty-five minutes, an hour of useless driving.

Marietta looked at me. “I can’t believe this. I can’t find Mercer Inn. We’re so late to the service there’s no point. Might as well go home.” She shook her head. 

I could breathe again, my whole body relaxing against the vinyl seat. 

But I’d done evil. I’d prayed at cross-purposes against her, against God. I could never let Marietta know. She wouldn’t want me anymore.

After we crossed an overpass, the Space Needle disappearing behind us in the fog, a thought punched in: What if Mother really could get better? What if she could, again and always, be the person who read to me in her soft voice, who laughed at my dumbest jokes, who wrote a poem of her daughter as a beautiful pearl? Had I doomed her to that tiny room with cockroaches and suitcases and pantyhose mildewing at a dripping, green-ringed sink? I smothered the images, clinging to my frail relief that we hadn’t picked her up. My secret identity was safe.

When we got home and shared a late dinner, Marietta told Joe, “The Devil kept us from finding Christy’s mother. She would have been healed. She was supposed to be healed.” 

I was an instrument of the Devil. 

Sister Harriet was scheduled to speak again the following Sunday night. Mother wasn’t coming. It was a saving grace that, with Marietta and Joe in choir, they couldn’t pick her up.

I was a tangle of conflicting emotions as we walked early into church. Marietta and Joe disappeared to put on their long purple choir robes. Curiosity welled while I waited in the foyer. Who was Harriet Denham Prix? Was she glowing, serious, powerful, masculine, young, or grandmotherly like Mrs. Shoemaker? I peeked into the sanctuary. An ordinary middle-aged woman sat next to Reverend Harris while Marietta and Joe filed onto risers with the choir. They all burst into the rousing, “Highway to Heaven.” The woman had old-fashioned strawberry-blonde hair tapered around her face like June Cleaver, and a long blue silky dress with a gleaming chunky silver cross around her neck. She was thin and smiley with a giant mouth of white teeth. 

I moved aside as people flooded past. I tried to blend in, even though I was the only middle-schooler; the youth group was meeting elsewhere.

People were wheeling in on wheelchairs and hobbling in on canes, people with loose, mustardy skin and rheumy eyes, parading silently into their places.

Harriet Denham Prix walked to the lectern, her face turning serious. Congregants nodded. They stuck hands in the air and waggled them. Small, twisted bodies sat in heaps, looking down, while strong, determined bodies held the wooden backs of pews, faces bright and focused.

Sister Harriet must have given an invitation to come forward, because a pasty old man crawled out of his seat and inched down the aisle, dragging a leg like Igor. He stood below her, waiting. She talked while he tottered, and I was afraid he was going to collapse in an accident if she didn’t hurry up and heal him. And then she jumped down the altar steps, stretched her hands over his balding head, and closed her eyes, face glowing. She looked like an angel. Her shout leaked out the sanctuary doors: “I thank you Lord for this healing. Whatever it takes!” 

He stood, nothing different about him, but everyone in the church lowered their hands, statue-still. I didn’t know if this was a healing. Confusion roiled in my chest.

All these hopefuls, with their cancers and diseases—they belonged to the world of miracles. Mother wasn’t here, never would be. Her illness was beyond the body; she had suffered shock treatments and hospitalizations and lectures and assaults, she had been outcast and divorced and widowed and broken; she had parented me badly, whenever she could get out of bed.

I turned, taking the side steps two at a time to the youth annex. Late to youth group, I acted casual, slipping onto the threadbare, overstuffed couch. Pastor Stan was saying he wanted to be relevant to kids today. He read to us sex advice from a Christian college magazine, Love, Sex, and The Whole Person. Those in seventh grade sat bewildered, while the eighth graders snorted and rolled their eyes, and Jen Baskin, a tenth grader, leaned forward and asked, “Does it count as sex if you’re just touching each other?”

The night ended with the usual drive home, Joe and Marietta bouncily reprising “Highway to Heaven” in the car. 

I thought about the healing service for a long time. Years later, I would pray my best prayers for Mother, asking for miracles, saying, “Whatever it takes, God.” My heart would break, wanting her to have a different life. But not yet. I was still living with the threat that any moment my happy life could end.

When we got home, Marietta spooned up fudge batter pudding at the dessert table. “Sister Harriet said interesting things,” she said. “You should never pray for something you’re not ready to believe. If it doesn’t happen, your faith will be destroyed.”

I’d tried doing two things at once: believing in God, and keeping Mother out of the picture. Maybe my faith was destroyed, but then again, maybe I had all the faith in the world. Good or evil, what I asked for had happened.

I had done something strange, abnormal, like nocturnal lagophthalmos. But maybe God had answered because God couldn’t help it. Smiling at me, thinking I was cute. Sleeping with my eyes open. 

About the Author:

Christi Krug’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in dozens of journals, zines, and anthologies, most recently in Backchannels Journal, The Saturday Evening Post, and GRIFFEL. Christi is a 2022 Emerging Writer for Centrum and a 2019 creative resident for North Cascades Institute. She is a presenter, a Pushcart nominee for poetry, and the author of Burn Wild: A Writer’s Guide to Creative Breakthrough, inspiring audiences across the United States. Christi serves as a writing coach, teaches for community education programs in Oregon and Washington, and leads nature/yoga/writing experiences at the Oregon Coast where she makes her home.

micro monday micro nonfiction nonfiction

Orange Meets Green by Emma Schmitz

Orange Meets Green | Emma Schmitz

I’m burning rubber on pavement, matching the positive to the negative, trying to get something to spark. The drive from the Northwest Sierra to the Southeast Sierra of California stretches like an octopus with so many routes to go. Manzanita, sinewy pines, bushy firs, and sagebrush lull in and out like a foamy-mouthed ocean on rock and sand.

If I take the iconic Tioga Pass, I won’t see the classic Topaz Lake. If I make time for the glossy June Lake Loop, I probably won’t have time to see the chalky Toufas up close. It’s a shame, the decisions we’re forced to make.

The book I’m listening to says to get quiet. To figure out my gift and share it with the world. It says some people go their whole lives not using their gifts, and I worry I’ve dropped mine somewhere or wasn’t invited to pick it up in the first place. I’m worried I was too busy worrying about other people’s ideas to discover my own gift, and I remind myself to stop worrying.

That night, I’m more concerned with finding a spot to camp than weighing the pros and cons of going back to school for a STEM degree I can’t afford, nor do I remotely qualify for. The next day, I’m too busy hiking up a mountain and sliding down spring snow to fantasize about my never-gonna-happen career in glittery media production or highbrow publishing.

That evening, I’m too distracted by the clever conversation and cackling of my two best friends to give a shit about what I do for a living. All of us in communications and marketing, writers at heart – those rare, deep connections we find as adults. There is no space to mis-fit in the vastness of a high desert forest.

There is no hard decision to make when one thing inches seamlessly into another. Where the desert meets the mountains, where orange meets green. Sometimes, things make the most sense at the point of connection – when one edge meets another to provide contrast, perspective. Where I don’t have to choose, where I can flow between.

About the Author:

Emma Schmitz (she/her) studied creative writing at UC Santa Cruz and is now a halfway homesteader in the California mountains at 6,000 feet above sea level with her partner and a couple of pit bulls. She’s currently living her seventh life of nine as a small business owner in the financial sector and, separately, a beer writer, judge, and educator with the mission of evolving the craft beer industry. Her creative work has been published in The Tiny Journal and The Closed Eye Open. See what she’s fermenting @wildbeerwriter.


Iowa Blues, and Greens by Summer Hammond

Iowa Blues, and Greens | Summer Hammond

the cornfields

McCausland, Iowa. Population 300. 

Row upon row of green, shimmery stalks, leaves turning liquid in the breeze. 

The cornfields are my sea. 

Mom says, wistful, “I wanted land, gardens. I wanted my kids to run barefoot, and climb trees.” 

She didn’t want a double-wide mobile home trailer, even if it is the yellow of lemon pie.  

She wanted an old farmhouse with lace curtains drifting and billowing, parting to reveal glimpses of the sun, a wild orange, melting into our sea. 

Every September, we pile into the RV, and drive across the Mississippi, all the way to Bishop Hill, Illinois. Jordbruksdagarna, Agricultural Days, with singing and dancing and sorghum making, woven brooms and needle in the haystack, kettle corn popping, butterflied pork chops sizzling, and homemade stew ladled into Styrofoam cups from a steaming, giant black pot. It’s here, in the 19th century Swedish community, still preserved, that Mom has found her fairy tale. 

A two-story farmhouse converted into a shop. As tradition dictates, we ascend the charming creaking stairs to our rooms. The two bedrooms across from each other she’s picked out for Sister and I. Wood floors, braided rugs, girlish homestead beds dressed in hand-stitched Swedish weathervane quilts. We do not see the price tags. We see our house, our rooms. What might have been. 

Mom’s face gets soft and dreamy. We all sink down on a bed. It’s the way she squeezes us to her. It’s the way she tells us she loves us. Can we buy it? Can we buy it right now? I want to purchase, whatever the cost, not this house but this moment with her. I could live here forever.  

Like any sea, the cornfields have power. They can swallow you whole. You can hide inside them. You can disappear. 

All summer, I swim, running the rows in bare feet, wind-milling my arms, the hot, dry earth mounding between my toes. I lay on my back and float, on a long daydream, the Iowa kind, woven of sky and cornsilk. 

The way the tassels whisper to me. 

They are my seashell. 

When I listen to them, I close my eyes, try to hear the whole world. 

gravel pit road.

Our lemon pie double-wide sits on a plot of land, down a long dirt lane, off Gravel Pit Road. 

Once it was called Quarry Road. Then the town voted to change it to Gravel Pit. 

Dad calls to protest the name change. 

I am eight years old. 

I am not allowed to have crushes. Mom broke the little gold lock on my little diary, red, the color of the Kool-Aid I am also forbidden. She read about my crush on Bryan Baker. The bad boy of 3rd grade. He pulled me under the coats when we lined up for the bus at the end of the day. He smooshed my lips to his. I didn’t write that. I wrote that I liked him. I drew a picture of me and him, stick figures with curly hair, holding hands, surrounded by hearts.  

Mom shook the diary in my face, her eyes ablaze, twitching. I don’t remember what she said. The words replaced by the broken lock in my face, jangling, jangling, jangling

I develop an uncontrollable crush on dump trucks. The wild roar, the truck bed that clang-clangs when empty, bumping over potholes towards the quarry – the gravel pit. The slow creaking rise of the bed to the sky, the sparkle and clatter of rocks raining out. I swoon over their rusty funky feral machine beauty. 

Mom buys me dolls. When she was little, she says, her dolls were her salvation. 

My dolls lay in the cradle, staring at the ceiling with blank eyes. 

I play with a beloved assortment of miniature dump trucks. I devote the day to building enormous towers of dirt. I am focused and passionate. My dream is to one day own a GIANT dump truck. Tonka. It’s too expensive. And yet, what heaping loads of gorgeous dirt and gravel a Tonka truck would carry! 

Mom watches me with wonder. “When will you like dollies?” She asks. It’s nearly a plea. 

Churning in my gut, a visceral aversion. 

At the Kingdom Hall, where we worship as Jehovah’s Witnesses, new mothers pass their babies around like the unleavened bread and wine. They are sacred. We (the women and girls) are all expected to partake. 

I never want to hold them, these sniveling and shriveled tyrants – kings and captors. I want to run from them. 

The first time I remember fearing my mother. 

My sister and I emerge from the mud puddle that collects in our driveway after a hard rain. Iowa pothole puddles, luxurious, coffee colored, gleaming, and irresistible. Sister and I dipped our toes in, then lost control. Now our matching pink terry cloth rompers are saturated, dripping with mud. Sister looks me over. Her face grows stark white. You can see, vividly, her freckles, interspersed with dried mud. A constellation. “We are in trouble,” she promises. “It’s going to be bad.” Her voice grave, her eyes round as she grips my hand. 

I don’t believe her. I don’t believe her fear. 

Mom’s rage blows our hair back. 

Like cartoon figures. 

My sister’s freckles float off, then explode, die around us. 

Like stars. 

schmitz farm.

A stately two-story cream-colored farmhouse, majestic red barn, great silver silos rising up, shining splendid. 

The Schmitz’ are the royal family of Gravel Pit Road. We buy our milk from them. 

Mom and I walk, holding hands, swinging our empty milk jugs. The gravel crunch-crunches beneath our shoes. 

In an outbuilding with a concrete floor and green peeling paint, we fill our jugs from a big stainless steel tank. A German shepherd sleeps nearby. Her pointy face frightens me. I tip-toe past her, lay my hand flat against the tank. I close my eyes, breathe. The warm belly of a goddess. 

Frothy creamy milk gushes from a spigot. 

Fredrick Schmitz, Sr., struts in hickory striped overalls, the kind worn by train engineers, steel toe work boots on his feet. A green John Deere ball cap stuck on his white-blond hair. He tucks his thumbs into his suspenders, belly ballooned out. His eyes, snake slits in his florid face. By God, this is my farm. He spits. He curses. He yells. At cows, neighbors, and sometimes school children, who visit the farm on field trips. He drives his green and yellow tractor chariot, taking his sweet time, hogging most of the road. You can see him smirk in that big tractor mirror.  

Fredrick Schmitz, Jr. The son. The prince. Owns a collection of dirt bikes, mopeds, ATC’s and ATV’s. 

He shoots guns, sets off firecrackers – and Mom’s temper. 

Perched atop a combine harvester, he hacks, leans over, spits on Sister and me when we’re digging out the mail from our dented, silver mailbox. We have the biggest mailbox of anyone in the trailer park. That makes us rich. 

Sister claws a loogie from her beautiful long curls.  

Heather Schmitz is the princess. 

Two years ahead of me in school but – if she’d passed Kindergarten – would be three. 

Heather has short, shiny platinum hair, cut to her square jaw. Snake eyes under blunt bangs. Football player shoulders. 

She shoves me down hard into the rocks under the jungle gym. 

She and her friends attack, swarm, grabbing my friendship pins from my sneakers, scattering those precious beads. 

I have a lot of friendship pins, but not a lot of friends. Sister made them for me. She selected each bead carefully. My favorite, the pale pink, like the ghosts of the extravagant peonies Mom grows in our front yard. 

The beads. The beads. 

I sort through the rocks to find them. The beads they didn’t want. 

rural route #1.

Our long dirt lane off Gravel Pit Road has a name. 

It is the #1 Rural Route in all of America!

I am a child. That’s how I think of it. 

A neighborhood of trailers. 

Ours is the only double-wide, the only one the color of lemon pie. 

Across from us, in the weeds, a broken down blue single sags. 

Sometimes, when I ride by on my bike, I hear Lonna Tubbs screaming, throwing dishes. Either at her kids, Earl and Tina. Or her husband, Hans. 

Her screams, like talons tearing out her guts. 

Hans spends hours sitting in his truck drinking beer, listening to Polka. In the winter, Lonna chases Dad with a $20 bill because he’s got a snow plow, and he plows Rural Route #1. The city plows always forget our lane. 

Stern, she shakes the money at him when he refuses, then tucks it in his coat pocket, and skedaddles. I’m grateful to her. She recognizes Dad’s hard work and realizes that, without him, we’d all be stuck inside a fortress of snow. 

Still, I can’t dislodge her screams from my head.   

Annie Byrd lives on the other side of us. She is a widow. I know this with deep certainty because Mom is the one who, in a blizzard, stuck on her coat, hat, and boots and pushed against the wind and blinding snow to check on Annie Byrd’s husband after Annie called, hysterical. 

Mom had to tiptoe into their bedroom.

Mom had to lean in over Annie Byrd’s husband, laying there in bed. 

Mom had to be the one to tell her. 

No breath. 

Now Annie Byrd mostly keeps to herself. But she’s adopted the trailer kids. We are, she says, her “heart” children. Instead of throwing away her bouquets, composed of peonies, roses, her most lush and luxurious flower gems, she scatters them in the lane, so we can come get them. 

I pull my rusty red wagon, bobbing over the potholes, and juddering along the rocks. Sister and I fill the wagon with roses. Around us, the other Rural Route #1 kids mill, earnestly arranging their own artful bouquets. I imagine that Annie Byrd watches us from her window while she washes the dishes, her soul filling full up with warm love. 

When we get off the school bus, Annie Byrd calls to us from her doorway, waving us over. She gives us homemade caramel apples to take home. The caramel has oozed and dripped, silky shiny, onto the white parchment paper. She’s garnished each stick with a ribbon, tied in a perfect, tiny bow. 

The specialness of this – almost too much to bear. 

the murphys.     

The Murphys live in a white single. Justin’s building a nice screened-in porch. 

When he’s not drunk. 

Jackie, Willy, Sister and I wait for the school bus at the end of the lane, huddled like a little herd of cows, stomping our feet, keeping each other warm on cold mornings. 

Jackie and I have an on-again-off-again relationship. 

Mostly off. 

When we play, the undercurrent is jaggedy. Even when we’re sneaking RC Cola in the outhouse, giggling. This alliance over forbidden food, and games laced with eroticism, carries an ominous bomb-like tick. 

More often than not, we end up in a savage dirt war, wrestling on the ground, balling clumps of each other’s hair in our hands. 

Sometimes, Jackie, Willy, Sister, and I all play hide ‘n go seek when the full moon hangs low, tickling the tops of the pine trees. 

One time, after an hour searching for Jackie, we can’t find her and give up. We call for her, around and around the yard. 

We walk up and down the lane, calling and calling. 

She never shows. 

Scared, we push open the front door of her trailer, ready to yell for help.

And there she sits. 

Chomping a bologna sandwich at the kitchen table! 

She grins up at us, devilish, beneath a luxurious milk mustache. 

This nearly beats the time we round the corner of the house only to find Jackie, squatting by our back porch, a glistening moon-lit puddle spreading fast beneath her feet. 

Sister freaks. Get out! Get out of our yard! 

Both Jackie and Willy do this, relieve themselves in the neighbor’s yards. 

Those Murphy kids, they’re troubled. 

Mom says. 

One night, Justin’s driving home drunk. 

He spins out-of-control on Gravel Pit Road by the Riley Farm. His car bursts into flames. He’s passed out, dead drunk. 

Quiet and shy Marv Riley, corn farmer, runs from his barn, heaves Justin from the fire. 

Justin will be in surgery over the next few days. Doctors will not be able to salvage much of his face. 

The next morning, getting ready for school, Mom pulls Sister and I aside. The Murphy kids won’t be in school today. Your Dad and I called the principal to let him know what happened. If you hear the kids gossip, shut it down. Both those kids are going through enough. 

Her eyes churn. 

The kind of righteous indignation, and mercy, that blooms 

from knowing that kind of pain. 

riley farm.

My best friends are cats. 



And a lively troop of imaginary friends: Nancy, Brittany, and Roberta. 

Nancy is a romantic sort who sips from honeysuckle blossoms, barefoot beside me in the cool, dewy grass. 

Brittany wears glasses, reads with me. She moved away, but comes back to visit when I’m sad and need someone to talk to. 

Roberta wears her hair up, sophisticated, and sings opera. 

I swing inside my Pig-Pen. 

The Pig-Pen is a fenced-in play area. Mom says, when they first put me in, and closed the gate, I ignored the swings, the sandbox, the toys. 

All I could see was the closed gate.

I ran to the fence, wailing. I grasped the fence, yanked, tried and tried to pull that fence down, stomping my feet. 

I love hearing the story of the Pig-Pen. 

My revolt.  

Now I’m big and can latch and unlatch the gate. I have a swing, a tire swing, a trapeze, and a teeter-totter. Dad made them all for me in his workshop. He is my own personal magician. All these things he’s made, give me wings. 

Late one night, my toes pointed to the stars, I’m swinging. And I’m singing my heart out. 

A passionate ballad, an ode to weeping willows. 

My favorite tree. 

They can be sad and still be beautiful. 

Still loved. 

After a while, I realize. I have an audience. He’s leaned up against the fence, chewing on a piece of straw, quietly listening. 

I stop swinging, my sneakers dragging through the dirt. 

I was raking out the barn, he says. I heard you singing. 

Ryan Riley. 

I’ve never had a best friend. 

Together, we swim the Cornfield Sea. We play hide n’ seek on ATC’s and zoom through the cold on his snowmobile, scarves whipping out behind us. We wade the Wapsipinicon, pants rolled up, while he regales me with gorgeous, outlandish stories about the child-eating Witch of the Wapsi. 

Finally, with him, my new bike looks the way I want it. Mud-encrusted! 

We have mulberry wars and end up purple for days. 

He plays kickball with me rowdy, and looks at me gently.

Once, after a full day together, rolling snowballs to build the world’s biggest sparkly snow fort, I trudge back home for supper. My boots get stuck in the mud of the mown down cornfield. I can’t move. I panic. It’s growing darker, and colder. I scream for help. Out of the darkness, Ryan appears, racing toward me. He loops his arms around my waist. He tugs and pulls, and finally, we tumble backwards together, falling in a heap. My feet hang in the air, socks half off. 

My boots, still stuck in the mud. 

I can’t stop laughing. 

I’m going to fall apart, laughing. 

Ryan’s my best friend. 

His arms around me real. 

Not imaginary. 

farm bureau. 

Dewitt, Iowa

We’re Jehovah’s Witnesses. 

We faithfully attend Kingdom Hall, five meetings a week. 

Dad found The Truth while training for the jungles of Vietnam. Before the draft, his bunkmate was studying with Jehovah’s Witnesses. He offered Dad a book published by The Watchtower Society. A blue book called The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life. Included in the 1975 Guinness Book of World Records list of highest printings. 

The Truth. 

In war, men turn to women or religion, Grandma warned Mom when Dad received his draft.

When we want to know if someone is Jehovah’s Witness, we ask, “Are they in The Truth?” 

Our congregation meets on the top floor of the brick Farm Bureau building in downtown Dewitt. 

We climb the narrow stairs past the darkened offices. Up there, the floor is old and scratchy. We sit in fold out aluminum chairs that squeak when you move a fraction. 

The faucet in the bathroom drips. The toilet overflows. 

But we have a real piano. 

We’re Jehovah’s Witnesses! We speak out in fearlessness! Ours is the God of true prophecy! What He foretells – comes to be! 

I sing at the top of my lungs because this Kingdom Melody is my favorite. Mom says, when I was a toddler, I sang it, unabashedly, top of the lungs, in public restrooms while washing my hands. 

Mom says she didn’t know whether to be embarrassed or proud, when the other ladies stared. 

 Kingdom Hall and door-to-door preaching are the only time I wear dresses. 

Once, a house-holder slammed the door in my face so hard, my frilly pink dress flew right up over my head. 

I was five. 

Preaching, missionary work. This will be my life. 

I’d better start liking dresses. 

Sister is throwing up again, her skin blotchy, eyes glazed. 

She says fragrances bother her. Not flowers. Not cooking. 

Perfume and nail polish. She has to come home from school early. 

And now she’s coughing up a lung because Brother Michaels has piled on the aftershave.  

I sit on Mom’s lap. I sometimes kick her shins with my Mary Jane’s, tickle her nose with my fuzzy hair. 

I used to share Dad’s Bible. Now, I have my very own crinkly-paged Bible.

Mom says giving up Christmas was the hardest part. 

Growing up, Christmas was the only peaceful time in her house. The one day her Dad stayed sober. Smiled. Remembered her name. 

I learn at Kingdom Hall that I may never have to die. Armageddon is right around the corner. Faithful Witnesses will survive into a restored earthly paradise. I’m so glad I can stay on earth with my Cornfield Sea. 

 Trees, swings, books, stories, and dump trucks! 

Hope for a New Earth. 

That’s my favorite part of being Jehovah’s Witness. 

Along with refusing birthday cake, and sitting during the Pledge of Allegiance. 

lemon pie trailer. 

Nosebleeds, migraines, infections. 

Sister’s been falling over backwards, eyes rolled up. She was admitted to the hospital, checked for a brain tumor.

Mom’s sprouted blisters all over her chin. A beard of blisters! And no period. Menopause, age thirty-five. 

Dad’s jaundiced, eye whites turned yellow. He’s plagued by a strange, unrelenting cough. 

I got so sick, I missed nine weeks of school. Nine weeks

I missed multiplication, fractions, and telling time. 

I will never catch up. Not in my whole life will I ever catch up. 

The culprit is The Monster, seeping out of the particle board. 

Your home is supposed to keep you safe, especially when it’s double wide and yellow like a lemon pie. 

After watching a news show about formaldehyde in trailer homes, Mom and Dad had the house checked. 

The levels of formaldehyde – lethal. 

It’s a miracle you all survived! The doctor credits the health foods and vitamins that Mom feeds us instead of Kool-Aid.  

Sister and I move out, sleep in the camper at night. 

Dad’s filing a lawsuit against the mobile home manufacturers.  

I have a rash on my butt. Scabby blisters that break open, freckling my shorts with blood. 

There’s nothing in the world now. 

Not one thing. 

That makes me normal.  

great river road

LeClaire, Iowa. Home of “Buffalo Bill” Cody. 

Refugees from a poison house. 

We leave Rural Route #1. 

We leave Gravel Pit Road. 

We leave the Cornfield Sea. 

And my one best friend – Ryan. 

We move into the house on the hill. The one that overlooks the highway. 

Below that, the train tracks.  

Below that, the Mississippi. 

River, train, highway, hill, house. 

Two of my cats are hit on the highway. Tigger was such a big, majestic cat. Such a lovely, sweet boy. Big paws, never claws. Licorice flaunted the long, regal nose of a duke. 

I’m inconsolable. I hate this place. Hate it, hate it. 

Dad makes me another swing. This time with silky rope, striped like a candy cane. He climbs the big Oak, fastens the rope to a limb. He tests the swing first. 

He flies, toes out, cowboy hat tipped back, face to the sun. 

He looks like a little boy. 


My heart grows tender. He believes, always believes, things will get better. 

Before you know it. 

I’m thirteen, with a period 

making stains like little red lakes on the wooden stool in shop class. 

When Mom gets mad, she shape shifts. Anger possesses her, turns her into a wolf. She lunges, backs us into a corner, froths at the mouth, snarls, raises her hand. 

 But she never hits. 

I’ve never been hit. 

I think her real power is in stopping. 

In making you wince and flinch 

and fear that one day, she might. 

I don’t have an attitude. I don’t talk back. I don’t push her. I always give in. 

And I make up with her fast as I can

Sister is so sick, she drops out of school. 

She stays home, cleans the whole house. She irons, vacuums, dusts. On Mondays, when Mom’s grocery shopping, she cooks dinner. She likes to get fancy, experiment. She makes Greek Pastitsio and Russian piroshki’s. 

She cleans up after me as I run out to play. She watches me from the window, hate building skyscrapers behind her eyes. Mommy’s little girl

She lets the curtain fall between us. 

Our illness is diagnosed, has a name. 

More than one.

Environmental Illness. Multiple Chemical Sensitivities. Sick Building Syndrome. 

Crazy. Hypochondriac. Attention-seeking. 

Those are the other names some doctors give us – and some of the brothers and sisters at Kingdom Hall. 

The school system sends tutors to pregnant girls and druggies. 

But they won’t send Sister a tutor. 

Dad files another lawsuit, this time, against the school. 

He coaches Sister on the testimony she’ll have to give in court. He makes her sit down at the kitchen table and write a letter to Terry Branstad, Governor of Iowa. 

Sister cries to me that this is his fight, not hers. He’s forcing the fight on her. 

We take trips. 

We travel to clinics. 

In Lacrosse, Wisconsin, a giant waspy needle injects us with chemicals, right down our arm. One sears like hellfire, blazing down a vein, ripping a scream straight from my chest. 


The doctor prescribes us antigens. 

Every day before school, backpack on, I stand by the fridge and open my mouth like a baby bird. Mom uses a dropper to deposit antigens under my tongue. 

In Dallas, Texas, a cardiologist believes in the Environmentally Ill.  

In secret, under the umbrella of his cardiology practice, he treats us. 

Those who cannot breathe, cannot leave the house, because the world sickens them. 

In the back room, the very back, dark like backstage in a theater, removed from the bright medical degrees on the wall, the treadmill, and the ECG – 

the cardiologist administers bee sting venom therapy. 

Beforehand, I sign a waiver. I scan it and realize – I might die. 

What if there is no hope? 

no promise, no everlasting trees and Cornfield Sea 

no Paradise on earth? 

Afterward, in the car, zooming down a Dallas freeway, I’m seized by a panic attack, so violent it nearly runs us off the road. Dad reaches into the back-seat, grabs my hair, and pulls so hard he nearly yanks me to the front. Calm down or you’ll kill us all! 

Antigens don’t work. 

Neither does bee venom.  

Dad wears a gas mask to Kingdom Hall. Otherwise, the scents make him too sick. 

Mom calls Grandma, cries. This illness is taking over our lives, Ma. If it’s not one of us, it’s the other. I spend half my life now taking care of sick people.  

Now when I swing, instead of the Cornfield Sea, I point my toes to the river. The Mississippi. 

I sing to the barges. 

I sing to the riverboats. 

I sing to the bald eagles. 

i-80 fred schwengel memorial bridge

 I sing to the bridge.  

 The bridge! 

When I swing, I see it, connecting LeClaire, Iowa, to Rapids City, Illinois.  

The 18-wheelers crossing all day, like toy trucks, shimmery, a mirage.  

The Fred Schwengel Memorial I-80 bridge opened in October 1966. 

We cross, a carful of laughing girls, on our way to Geneseo, Illinois. Sidewalk Sales. A full day of shopping. 

Mom, Grandma, Sister and I, and Mom’s best friend, Joannie, from Kingdom Hall. 

I love Joannie, ardently

The glorious sunset of her hair. Her round apple cheeks. Her unhinged laughter, coloring her face the same shade as her hair. 

Most of all, how she looks at me. 

One time, she brushed my hair. She always wanted a daughter. 

She looks at me like – she’d give anything

I never wanted it to end, her hands in my hair. 

Joannie has more Bible Studies than anyone else at Kingdom Hall. 

People-pleaser, but angry inside. Mom says. Joannie’s the Adult Child of an Alcoholic, like me. 

Mom and Joannie laugh so much, gripping their coffee cups, white-knuckled. A wild symphony of laughter. They can’t speak. Tears squeeze from their eyes. From the cracks in their laughter, something terrible might emerge. 

We cross the I-80 Bridge. Mom and Joannie, in the front, red-faced, snorting. 

I peer over the edge, at the river below, imagine us toppling. Imagine death. The engulfing, the blackness. The erasure of knowing. 

Stop. This is how the panic builds. 

Dad helped build this bridge. Before he dropped out to marry Mom, he was an engineering student at The University of Iowa. 

I do wish he’d made the guard rails higher. 

grandma’s cabin.  

Princeton, Iowa, on the Mississippi. 

Grandma stands on the porch, her bright blonde hair swooped into the ponytail of a teenage girl. College boys see her from behind and flirt. It happens constantly. 

Now, she leans across the railing and waves to the bargeman. He calls to her across the river through a megaphone. HI, MILLEE! 

The whole town must hear. 

Bargemen on the mighty Mississippi know my grandmother by name. 

She is famous. 

Her ex-boyfriend, Erwin, lives across the street. He runs a fish shop from his house. He built Grandma’s house for her. It’s rickety, and the furnace leaks, but it’s livable. She calls it her cabin on the river

Erwin’s married to another woman now. 

Still, he gives Grandma roses, every Valentine’s Day. 

At the end of the same road lives her ex-husband. 

The Old Man.

He’s famous, too. Everyone knows Willard Mahmens. 

Except his granddaughters.   

Grandma’s leopard print blouse is always unbuttoned by two or three buttons. She leans in. She plays with the buttons, bats her lashes. Her lipstick is red. Her earrings sparkle up a storm. I’m endlessly intrigued by her. 

I love her so much I could die! 

She’s worth every moment of even the worst pain of being alive. 


We have tea parties. She teaches me how to draw high heels and cleavage.  

When Sister and I visit, we walk downtown to fetch Grandma’s mail or buy popsicles from Boll’s General Store. 

Sometimes, we see him. 

He stumbles from Kernan’s Bar or Bridge’s Tavern. 

When we cross paths, he leers at us. Grizzled. Bleary-eyed. Wobbling. 

He just flirted with his granddaughters and he has no idea

Sister laughs. She grabs my arm. I laugh, too. 

The two of us, together. 

Laugh and laugh and laugh. 

The both of us, until broken. 

About the Author:

Summer Hammond grew up in rural east Iowa one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. She earned her MFA from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, where she served as editor on Chautauqua. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Texas Review, Sonora Review, and StoryQuarterly. She is a 2021 Missouri Review Audio Miller Prize Finalist and a 2022 semi-finalist for Nimrod International Journal’s Katherine Anne Porter Prize. Summer and her kindred spirit, Aly, currently live in Wilmington by the sea. Visit her at


Explication Of My Guilt by Jessica Pulver

Explication Of My Guilt | Jessica Pulver

I want to write about my guilt, so first I will say what happened. On the afternoon of February 19, 2011 in our white farmhouse in New Hampshire, I pushed our son Leo out of my body and onto the blue rug in front of the wood stove. The labor had dragged past forty hours. I’d sucked on supplemental oxygen to keep my strength up, and left the birthing tub to walk naked circles around the house to jostle my body along. Kathryn, my midwife, had pried her fingers up inside me to nudge Leo’s head this way, that way. Leo was descending – I had seen his dark hair in a mirror between my legs – then pulled back in again. Kathryn and her assistant had tried different positions, on the floor with my legs up. Every time they moved me it felt excruciating. Then, suddenly, Kathryn saw meconium — babies’ first poop which comes out before birth if they are in distress. If Leo took a gasp while still in the uterus and aspirated meconium into his lungs, it would lead to respiratory dysfunction. Kathryn reached and dialed 911. A minute passed, four minutes, I was breathing, we were waiting, not knowing for what. Just as paramedics filed into our living room, Leo dropped from my body with one tidal heave. He lay there gray, his eyes closed. He didn’t cry, he didn’t move. 

Other details survive. The smell of blood, of pads soaked in witch hazel. My husband Eric’s face, blank. The tug of the umbilical cord as they lifted Leo up, forgetting we were still attached. A glimpse of my rabbit, trembling in the corner of his cage, as they angled my stretcher through the narrow kitchen. The ambulance bumping on the frost heaves along the dark road to the local hospital. Wide glass doors sliding open. Nurses counting, clipboards, everyone rushing, no one saying what was happening. The sudden burn of IV pitocin when they realized my placenta was still inside me; the disappearing forearm of the woman who fetched it out of me when it was obvious pitocin was useless through my shock. A wail of agony. Being wheeled beside Leo: “You can touch your baby now.” Locking onto his dark eyes – for an instant we were familiar strangers, brought face to face from foreign worlds, and then they took him away again. Some time later, peanut butter cookies with Hershey’s Kiss centers my friend had baked, eating them and eating them, ravenously, insanely, not understanding how I could be in the car beside Eric as we followed Leo’s ambulance on its way to the NICU at Maine Medical Center. Rain on the windshield, Eric silently crying. Still knowing nothing.

Overwhelmingly, what I remember from that day is a distinct confusion, a lens that both sharpened my sensory experience and scrambled my cognitive experience. I witnessed events unfolding without any tether to a storyline. My voice arrived uninitiated. People I knew – loved – were like strangers acting parts. 

Guilt was the first way my mind offered up to make sense of the situation. In no way did I choose guilt; in fact, as a therapist, I knew the pitfalls of guilt from seeing them play out over years of work with my clients. Guilt uses trauma as a substrate – it is opportunistic and predatory. Guilt can be blinding, like an addiction. Guilt can be isolating and unspeakable, a recipe for profound loneliness. Guilt can be grueling and wear a person down to the bones. Guilt can be bossy, it can lead someone to try controlling everything. It can be vigilant, can steal sleep and rest and peace. It can also be beguiling, resisting resistance, a chameleon in the realm of rational conversation. All this I knew well and yet I was defenseless when it came to my own trauma and the way guilt grew from it.

Early in the morning of Leo’s second day, as I sat in the NICU rocking chair and held him in my arms for the first time, breathing and feeding tubes attached, and sang him Edelweiss, guilt arrived without question. It lodged in my throat like a clump of dirt I couldn’t rinse down. It staked a claim on me that was as incontrovertible as the fact of my new motherhood. It said: you are responsible for this baby, and since you are responsible, his birth is your fault. You were reckless to plan a homebirth, candles, birthing tub; it was all foolish romance. You should have known your baby better, what he needed; you were hasty, began to push too soon. You should have taken fuller breaths on the living room floor to send the oxygen to him. You were naive to the stakes; even after they saw meconium and dialed 911, you believed he would be fine. You should have worried more.

Leo has Cerebral Palsy and it matters every day. He is in fifth grade now, and he has a hard time from the moment he wakes up. Extracting his limbs from under his quilt, walking to the bathroom to pee. He stumps across the floor, hobbled by spasticity, trying to balance on his bent left leg and right big toe. The entire right side of his body is more affected than the left, and the tightness pulls his right heel up so it doesn’t ever fully touch the floor. In the mornings he’s the stiffest; as the day wears on, his heel descends a bit. He leans on the doorknob. He leans on the sink and smears toothpaste across his PJs. He leans on the flimsy towel rack, forever overloaded by our family of five, and it collapses again. When he goes down with it, he slams his head on the tub, hard. But he doesn’t cry, he is used to falling down. He forms his stiff lips to call out, “I’m okay!” He even takes a deep breath first to project his weak voice so we can hear him from the kitchen where we are making coffee, bagels, a fire, and stick our heads out to the hall when we hear the thump upstairs. 

Thumps like those are the drumbeat of my guilt that has aged over a decade. In them, I hear reverberations of fears and shame. Like an echo chamber: Leo might not walk. Leo might not talk. Leo might not have a friend, a career. Leo might not be able to kiss the person he falls in love with. Leo might not be happy, might be in pain. And his pain is my pain because it is my fault. 

There is nothing special about guilt; it is common as a weed. From the beginning, when I talked with Eric about the birth, I could hear myself blame myself harshly. I cringed when I felt like guilt had become old and stale and almost self-indulgent in a masochistic way. Eric had his version too. On a date a few years ago, we were trying to relax by paying to soak in a hot tub. We got talking about Leo again, and Eric told me how he held himself accountable for allowing the labor to stagnate for so long and not insisting we go to the hospital. 

“All I said was, ‘How long are we going to keep doing this, guys?’” he said to me, and I could see the tears in his eyes through the steam.

Kathryn, my hapless midwife, stayed with me for the first few days after Leo was born, bringing me pillows and salves for my hemorrhoids, helping me clean the breast pump parts. Maybe she would have done so regardless, but it seemed like guilt was prompting her to linger. Then she took a few months off from midwifery to reflect on whether she could continue. My grandparents came to visit Leo when he was four months old and failing to thrive, unable to coordinate his mouth muscles to draw in enough breastmilk. Even they spoke ruefully at our dining room table of wishing they had tried harder to convince us not to have a home birth. 

Sometimes guilt gets turned around and the blame points outward at someone else. My mother and my mother-in-law do not have a lot in common, but they both gave cold shoulders to Kathryn when they saw her ministering to me in those early days.  It made me uncomfortable to see this. I felt fiercely defensive of her and said repeatedly that she had done her best for me. I was shocked, when I began to read Cerebral Palsy websites, how many parents sued their doctors for malpractice in their children’s deliveries. It’s true I spent a long time poring over the details of the labor, and the medical records from the weeks before. Some of the explanations were flimsy because there really was no way to know what exactly had gone wrong, but some were because Kathryn tended to be an inattentive notetaker and was often flaky about her agenda at appointments. It would have been easy to hold this against her but I concluded instead that I should have been a better judge of character or taken a more active role. I steered far away from blaming Kathryn because I needed to keep the blame for myself.

What does it mean, this haunting? Pain is at the heart of what I want to say about guilt. Because despite the fact guilt caused me to suffer at various times in all the ways I recognized in my clients’ lives, the pain it kept me from was worse: I did not have to face the idea that CP was not my fault. What kind of terrifying, arbitrary world would that imply? How would I know how to live if anything bad could happen to me, if I wasn’t exceptional, if I had no power? Guilt was working for me, soothing me in a haze of lies, so I didn’t have to surrender my entire worldview to a meaningless existence. So for a long time, I relied on guilt to fuel my denial. Guilt snugs up close to regret, as if reality were something we chose, as if it were something we could have controlled, as if it were something that shouldn’t have happened, wasn’t supposed to happen, as if it were something bad, as if it were a mistake. And a mistake has no meaning when it comes to Leo.

First, yes there was trauma, but also as there often is, great strength. Leo and I managed together to get him born in the nick of time, before the paramedics loaded me onto the stretcher and brought me in the ambulance down the long bumpy road to the hospital, a ride during which he would have surely died inside me. Eric has called it miraculous more than once. So we have Leo in the world, and who would he be apart from CP?  I love him immeasurably, and I mean I love all of him. I love his crooked lope across the baseball field. I love the way he starts laughing uncontrollably before he can finish telling a joke, and the laughter makes him drool. 

Also, CP slows us down, brings us together, gives us perspective, patience, and resilience. I am proud of the strength of our family, Leo’s siblings, our marriage. And last, there is the nature of life, which is that it’s complicated. Who can know what would have happened, if this, if that? How responsible can we ever be? 

I have learned it’s okay to hate CP sometimes and wish like hell that Leo didn’t have it, and still to find meaning, and even identity, even beauty in his disability. I have learned I can tell someone that Leo has CP because I had a homebirth, and in that sense I claim responsibility, but stop short of culpability. I have learned it’s important to try hard to make a good decision for Leo, but that trying too hard to get things right can lead to a place of arrogance or fantasy where it’s possible to live with only good outcomes. And that this way of life may feel safe but is constraining, is missing something. Pain. Discovery. Slowly, the contradictions of my world have settled into background mystery. I can’t really say how this happened. Time? And dipping back into the morass of memory, coming up sticky and swollen. By crying. By counseling. By writing in journals, walking with friends, screaming at the ocean. By waking up and loving Leo every morning.

These days, guilt still shows up in the form of doubt and an unending incantation of questions. Maybe we should stay upstairs with him every morning in case he falls. Should we bolt more handles to our walls? Maybe he should wear a helmet. We struggle to keep the routine of stretching him on the massage table before school, to loosen him up just a little. We grapple with possible surgeries – will they do more harm than good? Leo is eleven now; how should we involve him in the decisions? We visit specialist after specialist who dispenses contradictory advice. And how much difference does wearing his braces really make? But I like to think that guilt shows up somewhat guiltily now. It knows better than to come masquerading as something authoritative and scary. I have quelled it, if not vanquished it. I know that asking these questions is part of parenting Leo well, and that is work I am committed to excelling at.

Now, when hard parts of CP pop up, I have learned to say: this is not guilt, this is grief. Grief for his falls in the bathroom. Grief for when he can’t ride a scooter with the neighbors, ski with his cousins. Grief for when he cries out for me, brave as he is, when the neurologist injects him with Botox to take the edge off the muscle spasms. Grief for the toll that parenting Leo has taken on our marriage and the hurts we have endured in order to stay together. Grief lives on. It is hard, and heavy, and long. Sometimes it nudges guilt back alive, to distract from the pain. But the pain is the truth and the truth is brilliant. It’s not that I made a huge mistake by having a home birth and we all had to suffer the dreadful consequences. It’s that I made a choice that winter, and then we abided the rest of our incomprehensible lives.

At dinner, after a couple sentences about band practice antics, Leo gives up telling about his day because talking makes him tired and takes too long, and he has to focus on chewing so he can put in enough calories. Spasticity involuntarily contracts his muscles so he is constantly dumping energy. Just sitting in his chair at the end of the day is an effort. Still, he is amazing. Instead of talking, he smiles at me across the table, and his smile is like none other. A big part of me believes he would not have that smile if not for CP.

About the Author:

Jess Pulver is a mother, social worker, and aspiring gardener nestled in the woods outside Portland, Maine. She majored in Creative Writing at Swarthmore College over twenty years ago, but has only recently returned to the writing life. Her work is forthcoming in Literary Mama, Waccamaw Journal, and Kaleidoscope Magazine. She attempts to look deeply at the complexity of emotions, in her therapy practice and in her writing.


Failure by Lauren Davenport

Failure | Lauren Davenport

I work in a school full of ghosts and traitors. It is a failing school. It has the second lowest passing rate in the city–not a statistic the school cares to flaunt. The phrase, “This is my seventh principal,” is a badge of pride around here. The first person who said this to me said it with an extra curl in her lip because she knew that I’d joined this school at the behest of Principal Number Seven, my dear friend. Principal Number Seven believed (and still believes) that this school and the people in it can be salvaged. The place is littered with crinkled empty bags of Doritos, smashed Arizona cans, buzzing fluorescent lights, faulty door handles, and fragile hearts. Peel back the layers of chipped paint on the walls and watch the colors spiral down to the tiled floor. Perhaps Periwinkle Blue will save the place. Each coat of paint represents a promise, each layer calling on the indefatigable American desire for a happy ending or a fresh start. 

This place has a particular odor. Sure, all high schools are smelly places. Hormones and sweaty armpits, the stench of onions and bleach. Teenagers smell. Adults smell. Poverty reeks. But the smell here, on the Lower East Side, is something stronger still. It’s the odor that connects us all. It cuts through race, through class, and rests not just on the epidermis–the smell lodges itself in the soul. Imagine the smell like a universal perfume. L’eau de Failure. It smells like the water left from flowers after they’ve sat in a vase for a week. It smells like something that may have once been beautiful, but is now decaying. It is a cheap perfume. No amount can mask what is underneath. 


I do my best to clear the hallways. I tell the ghosts who are trying to cut class to go where they are supposed to go. But here comes one who has never stepped inside a class. He’s almost twenty. He’s told the staff that he’s transferring. He’s been saying that for months. At twenty-one, he’ll be released from roaming the halls and instead he’ll roam the streets. 

“Where are you supposed to be?” 


“You’re cutting ART? I don’t get it. You are so artistic.” He truly is. I blink and picture this kid selling Tarot Readings to Upper East Side stay-at-home moms. 

“I am. But I don’t like drawing. I mean, the teacher, she helped me a lot but I just don’t like that kind of art.” 

“You prefer the stairwell for its artistic value.” 

“Exactly, Miss.” He gives me a hug. 

He’s at least twice my height but such a child. He is radiant. His brown eyes are so wide. His white teeth explode from his goofy smile. I worry that someone will want his gold chain. Or that the police will catch him if he jumps a turnstile or does something typically adolescent and foolish. He does the “nay-nay,” the latest dance, and rounds the corner. I ask a few other kids to go to class. They respect me enough to at least go to another floor and let me save face. I could write them up in our anecdotal database if I wanted to convince myself that the writing would have meaning. 

I smell weed from the stairwell. I open the swinging doors at the east exit to see if I can find the dealer. The ghosts are gone. What lingers is a wisp of smoke strong enough to make me lose my footing.

The ghosts take many forms. Some are names on my roster, marked absent day after day. These ghosts appear a few times a year to collect their free metro cards, or because the truancy officer showed up or a home visit was made, but they are apparitions. They float in, they float out. If I blink, I’m not sure they are real. 

Others appear more frequently but are so angry, hungry, tired, sick or depressed that their full forms are hard to see. They are might-have-beens before they ever had a chance to be. I see their families in their eyes. The broken promises of that horrible phrase “a better life”–a phrase scribbled on poorly written formulaic essays that I teach them to write in order to pass the state exams. I see their parents who once floated down these same halls discovering themselves, fighting to have a chance to just be and often losing. “My moms get ratchety when the teachers call home. They hate that shit. They don’t give a fuck. They don’t want to hear nothin’.” 

I love these ghosts. When I point out that the hallways are not actually where they should be, they laugh, shrug their shoulders and respond, “you right, Miss, you right.” I form cautious relationships with them because these ghosts hurt the people who love them. 

One ghost let me believe I was helping him. His progress was astounding until the day of the state exam he stayed home for. He hasn’t returned. I called home to say that it was ok that he skipped the test. He’ll be nineteen soon. He wants to join the army. 

Another ghost left after one too many suspensions. He’s out there somewhere and from time-to-time I think I see him on the corner when I’m walking to the subway. 

Then there’s the ghost who writes brilliantly when he isn’t shoving students into lead pipes in order to steal their weed. He says flatly that his actions are part of the hustle, the game, and he has to do “what he’s gotta do to stay up.” Common phraseology around here. After each suspension he comes back determined to stay on target. He’s on time. His hand is in the air ready with insightful questions and comments and if I let myself dream, I see him going to college and succeeding there. Three days later, he’s high with blood shot eyes, stuffing Jolly Ranchers into his mouth, putting his head down on the desk, drooling. 

There’s another who talks to me about Kant and Locke but won’t come to class because he says it makes him too anxious. There are the ones who are taking too many meds prescribed by so-called doctors. There are the ones who self-medicate. There are the ones who post too much on social media. The ones who can’t put their phones away. The ones who can’t stop talking. The ones who coat themselves in lip gloss during class. They are typical teenagers but they don’t have money or support to get them out of the holes they fall in. So when they fall, and they fall, they stay stuck. After a while, they don’t want to come out even when I extend my hand. There are the ghosts who hide in the library. The ghosts who go to counseling instead of class. There’s the ghost who has a cousin who abuses her. There are ghosts here that I can’t even see. 


I’m an upbeat person. I smile a lot. I laugh. I’m earnest. Optimistic. Idealistic. I’m giddy when I learn a new teaching trick, or help a student discover something. I love teaching. I love observing the way teenagers see the world. The way they all hate and love their moms. The way they hate and love themselves. I love trying to keep up with them.

“Hey you guys,” I’ll say. “I got zo’ed for my pack of gum today.”

“You can’t say it like that Miss.” 

They love it when I try to speak their language. I score major points when I explain that Macbeth IS the original O.G., the Godfather of all the gangstas, the MAN. I lose points when I use the word telephone, when I say we should “videotape” their discussion. I love listening to them translate the academic into the street. I tell them I think they are much, much smarter than I am because they are apart of so many subcultures. They understand, on some level, how symbolic an education they are being offered. 

I am the Literacy Coach for the school. I teach four classes to the lowest performing kids in the school. I write the school newsletter, I help the school develop the curriculum, I run the weekly professional training seminars with the school’s lead teacher, and like everyone else, I put out umpteen unforeseen fires every single day. 

When I began working at the school last summer, I set up a Teacher Resource Room. I cleared out a space that had belonged to a beloved social work program for which there was no longer funding. I hauled out dusty books, swept away mice crap, chucked discarded shoes and shirts, recycled loads of old papers. I set up computers and networked a printer, filled a bookshelf with professional books on educational strategies and research for teachers to read and borrow. I sent out emails soliciting ideas, interests, suggestions. One person emailed to request that I please remove her from the email list. Another asked if the coffee would be free. 

I knew that transitioning from one school to another would take time, but my reception wasn’t just cool, it was frigid. 


3-1-1 is the catch all phone number for information and reporting in New York. In the world of ghosts and traitors, it’s an anonymous punch-in-the-gut. When I transferred to the school, I’d come from a place where teachers supported one another. No matter what. When one of the Tiffanys (I had three Tiffanys in my classroom one year, each notorious) was out of control, I’d take a piece of paper, write 3-1-1 on it, staple it, and send her to another teacher’s room. The teacher would hold Tiffany until class was over. We traded unruly kids constantly. It avoided the paperwork and most of the time, it helped the kid cool down.

A few months into the academic year at my current school, I learned about a different use for 3-1-1. One morning, my son was too sick to go to Pre-K and my babysitter couldn’t get him until lunchtime, so I had no choice but to bring him to work. The ghosts swooned over him. They fed him Skittles and juice. They kept him warm, they played along as he waved his toy taxi cab or drew circles with his green crayon. My son laughed and enjoyed seeing Mommy as a teacher. He told an unruly student to sit down and out of sheer amusement, the student obeyed. But the next morning, I was called into the assistant principal’s office because of an anonymous 3-1-1 call. A fellow teacher coerced a student into placing the call. She’d taught her what to say. I was told to just stay home if I couldn’t find a babysitter. I went to talk about it with the lead teacher. 

“They don’t like you. You are friends with the Principal. You haven’t proven yourself. You’re an outsider.” 

“I’m a teacher. We’re on the same side.” 

“Not to them.” 


Hall duty again. A group of kids stand outside room 255. “Where’s your teacher?” I ask. “He’s missing, Miss.” I open the door. The room is empty. I check the library. He’s not there. I run downstairs, upstairs but the man is nowhere to be seen. Finally, I knock on the door of the assistant principal’s office. I don’t want to get the guy in trouble, but I’m starting to worry that he went out for coffee and isn’t coming back. 

I learn that teachers watch other teachers to make sure no one is late to work. Someone watches to ensure that each educator is teaching the exact same number of instructional minutes as every other educator. A teacher is watching to make sure that the assigned professional duties are distributed according to Union Regulations. Union Regulations. Union Regulations. Union Regulations. The traitors chant this phrase like a biblical verse. It is their truth. Their righteousness. Their Savior. The Union died on the cross for the administrators’ sins. Someone is watching. Someone is watching. Someone is watching. I need a cup of coffee. I ask my friend and co-teacher if she wants to come with me. 

“Let’s use the back exit through the other school,” she says. “Because someone might be watching.” 

Principal Number Seven tells me not to be discouraged. She insists I stay true to myself. She plasters the school with posters of inspirational quotes from Maya Angelou and Nelson Mandela. She puts potpourri in her bathroom and fills her office with plants. She can make anything grow. She has superpowers. She is the greatest listener on earth. She hears every voice. I will not be discouraged. 


I have to cover for another teacher who is out sick. A ghost comes in floating very high and before I can say anything, she knocks over a set of bookshelves.

“I just smoked the fattest blunt, yo.” She opens a window. “This is cooling off my soul.”

I ask her to sit down. She laughs at me. She grabs a bottle of water and begins to spill the water up the center aisle of the classroom. She stops at the computer cart. I warn her that if she can’t pull herself together, I’ll have to call security.

“Suck my dick,” she says. “I don’t give a fuck.” 

A fellow student begins to play the popular “I don’t give a fuck,” song from her computer. Several students join in. I quash it. But the girl won’t leave. I have no choice. I call security. No one comes. I call again. Now there are two girls twerking in the front of the room. I thank the other ghosts for staying on task. The assistant principal comes in. The girl still won’t leave. Another teacher comes in. The girl ghost floats above us all. 

She says, “Can you help me find the fuck I don’t give?” She cackles. She has become a ghost-witch. A mash-up. 

The security guard arrives out of breath and perturbed. She shrugs her shoulders and says, “If that girl won’t leave for any of you, what do you think I am supposed to do?”

The ghost smiles. “She can’t touch me. None of you can touch me.” 

She sings her fuckless song. Time passes. The other ghosts pretend to work. This is their latest viral video. It washes over them. They seem to experience every event as though it is on repeat, through a transparent sheet masking any authenticity. 

The ghost girl walks to the door and says, “Right bitches, I’m out.” She leaves. 

The security guard tells me later that the ghost girl will likely receive a glass of milk and some cookies from Principal Number Seven. Principal Number Seven will tell me that in some ways the security officer is right. Too many suspensions will ensure that the school doors close forever. A failing school is under endless scrutiny. We must improve attendance, test scores, graduation rates. We have to have just the right number of suspensions and the right kind.


We are supposed to supply rigorous academic content. Find complex, authentic texts to use. Apply flexible instruction. Support accountable talk. Ensure that the students know their daily learning targets. Recommend a growth mindset. Encourage the students. Mentor the students. Maintain high expectations. Scaffold student learning. Hold students accountable for their learning. Motivate students. Assess students. Provide students with rubrics. Leave students room for answering but not waste too many instructional minutes. Provide student-centered activities and avoid teacher-directed content. Deliver content through a gradual release of responsibility. We are not to teach to the test. We are evaluated by the test scores. We need word walls. We need recent examples of authentic learning that reflect higher order thinking. 

Evaluators come in and out of the classrooms to make sure we are doing our jobs. They snap pictures and shake their heads. Where are our call logs to prove that we are contacting parents? Can they see recent evidence of data-driven decisions? Why didn’t we differentiate this assignment to meet the needs of each learner? We are not good enough. We aren’t good enough. We aren’t good enough. They distribute memos. They issue proclamations. They giveth, they taketh away. 

In successful schools, administrators are learning partners. The most common phrase is “what do you need and how can I help you?” In this school, everyone needs someone to blame. The Superintendent points to the Principal who points to the teacher who points to the student. It’s a culture of failure. It’s cyclical. It’s insipid, malignant and possibly fatal. 

I ask a boy ghost to please move tables so that he can focus and get his work done. He refuses to do so. I try humor, guilt-trips, silence, peer pressure. He will not budge. 

It’s Wednesday. Time for our weekly full-staff professional training. I ask the teachers to move their seats so that they are sitting in departments. They refuse. I try humor, guilt trips, silence, peer pressure. They refuse to budge. One of the teacher calls across to her peer shouting, “what time is this over?‘” Another says, “how long do we have to be here?” Traitors. I feel ashamed to be a card-carrying union lady. I am developing TMJ. My migraines are getting worse. I start avoiding the Resource Room I created. It is windowless and stuffy in there and the stink will swallow me whole. 


Bulletin boards are due by 3 PM. Principal Number Three had them all painted lime green. She decorated the building as if it were her house. The lime has a great deal of yellow in it. Combined with the fluorescent lighting, it’s like an instagram shot with a filter. I watch a student slug another student who trips just under the poster reading “Recipe for Success.” For an instant I feel that I might vomit. The moment passes. I wonder if I have enough typed student work to cover the green. 


I joined this school because I thought I could help. Everyone here seemed to be trying to escape from something and I was trying to escape from something myself. My marriage was floundering. 

A few years ago, my family moved to the West Coast in a futile attempt to escape my husband’s crippling depression. My two small children were on top of one another in our tiny space in Brooklyn. We were deep in debt. We thought we’d save money in Seattle. My husband needed a new job. Fresh air. More space. We thought that we could fix what was broken. We were tired of ten dollar orange juice and neighbors who bought into our housing complex in order to have guest houses or who bought from abroad and left them empty. We

were tired of watching our friends leave to be replaced by entitled, self-important assholes who hated noise. WHY THE FUCK ARE YOU MOVING TO BROOKLYN IF YOU HATE NOISE? We were ready to leave. 

But New York is its own kind of prison and recidivism is often self-induced. The escape plan didn’t work out. I missed the seasons. I missed the noise. I missed my friends. My husband was still depressed. I hated the grey. I hated large spaces. I missed our cramped little home. The holes in my life felt larger, darker. After three years, I came home with my two kids. My husband would look for work in New York. In the meantime, he would take care of himself. He would get some help. We would see what to do about our marriage. I spoke to Principal Number Seven. I toured the school with its lime green bulletin boards. I walked the hallways with the ghosts floating about. I shook hands with the traitors not seeing through their cracked smiles. 

I envisioned a team of teachers working together to turn the school around. I imagined the inspired students able somehow to overlook their hunger, their rage, their neglectful parents in order to learn about hypotenuse triangles and homeostasis. And I’ve always wanted to teach on the Lower East Side. The center of the American Dream, the place where there were once seventeen yiddish newspapers. Where tenements and skyscrapers shook hands. The place where entrepreneurs and dreamers carved sculptures from desire and desperation. Where the resourceful could dig themselves out sans shovel. I could dig myself out. I could start over. 


Two ghosts stand up to leave my class. We’re discussing Macbeth. His ambition is his downfall. A student is annoyed that Macbeth is trying to “punk out” and not kill Duncan. I remind them that in the world of the play, fair is foul, and foul is fair. The world of this play is topsy turvy. It is twisted, ugly and full of lies. In the world of this play, things are not what they seem. 

“Why are you guys leaving? This is a class, you can’t just walk out.” 

“Sorry Miss, we have business.” Fair is foul. Foul is fair. 

Sometimes I think the place should be closed down. Get rid of all the traitors. Let the music teacher whose favorite song is the innuendo find something better to do with his life. Let the videographer go back to making movies. Let the science teacher with the unsatisfactory rating quit while he is ahead. Take a match to the place and start again. Let the charter school take over. They send their people over to measure the rooms anyway. They have their blueprints and their fancy flyers. They are ready to go. Let them have it. I’ll find another job. I’m not too worried about that. But I’m not sure I can just roll over and play dead. I know I can’t fix the school, but I’m not sure I can let it go either. Yet, I’m equally unsure of how long I can stay before becoming a ghost myself. 


I love these ghosts. Will the charter school love them? I take them back time after time, misstep after misstep. 

“I’m good today, Miss. Look at my eyes if you don’t believe me.”

I believe that these ghosts need a place to roam. 

“Miss, I’m going to pass this marking period. I’m on my A-game.”

I stink too, now, and the culture of failure is a part of me. When my very best earns an F, it gets harder and harder to want to try for an A. Somedays, I feel that I don’t want to try at all. I don’t see the point. This is a lesson my students have known their entire lives, but that I am just learning. The traitors in my school learned it long ago. With each passing principal they realized that nothing that they did would ever be good enough, and in time they believed that to be true of themselves as well. And so it became true. It is true. The ghosts are angry and so they hurt the traitors. The traitors are angry so they hurt me because I am powerless and these are street rules. Survival is all there is to hope for. We wander around half-living, half-doing, half-caring. We are all traitors. We are all afraid of our odor.

My son crawls into my bed almost every night to talk to me about monsters or vampires or some other invisible fear. My daughter cries when she learns I am the Tooth Fairy. My husband is not next to me in bed. Our lives are filled with illusions, half-truths, disappointments, failures. There are so many moments gone, so many candles blown out, so many wishes wished. Before I know it, I will be gone. I want to start over again. 

My husband is hundreds of miles away. He is getting treatment. He climbs mountains on weekends and sends me #SoHigh selfies. He is beginning to see how horrible it was for me in a grey city where he would stay in bed leaving me to the dishes, the kids, the bills. I am learning to treasure the moments when he feels like himself. I am trying not to dwell over the lost moments when he does not. I am not thinking about the person he used to be. I am trying to love the person he is. We are slowly finding one another again. I think.

I head to school each day and wonder which ghosts I will see, which traitors will be standing nearby, waiting to hurt me. I wonder if the copy machines will work. It’s Spring in New York but I no longer know what this means because it is snowing. Fair is foul and foul is fair. There are budding tulips, there is sunlight, and the smell of spring masks the failures I hide. A fresh coat of paint covers up a student’s graffiti spree. The new paint makes me wonder if just maybe, I’ll get that American ending. The ghosts greet me with questions, fist bumps, hugs, tears. I sip my coffee. Bulletin boards are due next Tuesday at 3.

About the Author:

Lauren Davenport writes fiction, creative-nonfiction, and some things in between from Brooklyn, NY. She is a proud NYC Public School Educator who has been serving high schools students since 2001.