By Nicole Cater
I’m 26 and all is right with the world. I just got married. I love my job at a local bank. I’ve grown from teller to lead teller, to receptionist to commercial loan assistant. I have a hand in making multi-million dollar deals happen and at the same time, making small time dreams come true for basic consumers. I’ve won a Service Person of the Year award. Well, co-won, the other winner was my best friend. No one in the company doubted we deserved it. I was an up and comer, a Jill of all trades. Any questions that needed to be answered, just ask Nicole. Eight years in, I knew this business and my place in like a well oiled machine. And that machine was about to get and upgrade. I was in training for Project Analysist, the step below Loan Officer. And I was doing all this, enjoying my honeymoon and putting myself through college. The one and only complaint I had was an ever present pain in my back that would sometimes hinder my movements, or shoot burning pains down my leg. I was in Physical Therapy for what was guessed to be arthritis, but it didn’t help much. I was out through so many blood tests, I felt like a pincushion.
And so it was just another ordinary day when I went to the doctor to get and update and a refill of the medication that was giving me an ulcer. Instead of those routine issues, lightning struck. I learned one of the many blood tests finally found something. It found HLA-B27 and antigen on chromosome 6 that courses your immune system to attack your spine, causing vast amounts of arthritis that can never be cured called Ankylosing Spondylitis. I grieved. I grieved for the life that would never be. I grieved for the person I was that I would never be again. I fell into deep depression.
Doctors, no knowing what to do, and lacking a Bi Polar Disorder diagnosis, put me on anti-depressants. They didn’t work. I snapped. I lost my job. I lost my husband. I lost my house. I even lost my dog. Another two jobs, another two freak outs. It turns out, lightning struck again. Not that it is ever pleasant. But this time I was prepared. There would be doctors. There would be pills. I would suffer and adjustment period. But I also knew I would survive. After all, the first strike didn’t kill me. Change the course of my life, absolutely. But I’m still her, still fighting. And for those here tonight who don’t know me personally, I fight, I survive, I thrive!
By Lea Anne Stoughton
Vial 8529-A broke with an insignificant tinkle of glass. The panic among the first white-coated victims, however, was quite significant indeed. One might think the split-second hiccup in power to the emergency lock-down protocols was insignificant, but in fact it was the most significant thing to happen that day.
* * *
The nondescript building on the corner of 4th and State, the one that everyone assumed was some kind of insurance company, exploded. The resulting fire produced heat so intense that firefighters could only focus on containing it. The building was empty anyway, they were told, because it was full of bugs.
* * *
A boy, maybe nine or ten years old, sat on the sidewalk outside the shop when the butcher arrived to open for the day. The kid was crying. The butcher glanced around, but he didn’t see any adults that seemed to belong with the kid. He gave a mental shrug and pushed through the door. When the morning rush cleared out, the kid was still sitting there. He sighed and wiped his hands on a towel. The kid ate three hot dogs and would have gone for a fourth if he hadn’t started crying again. The butcher couldn’t get anything from him, not even a name, and soon stopped trying. He watched the kid blubber into his root beer and realized his afternoon was shot.
* * *
Todd! My name is Todd! Todd Strasser. My mom went to work but she didn’t come home. I don’t remember what day. Not yesterday, the day before that. I don’t have a dad. I don’t know what to do. I was going to go to grandma’s but I didn’t know what bus to take and I only had four dollars and some cents in my piggy bank. I’m so scared. What if I’m alone now forever? I don’t want to be alone. Please
don’t make me be alone.
They both fell asleep in front of the TV that droned a constant stream of local news: explosions, the mayor’s latest girlfriend, some flu going around, get your shots people.
* * *
Todd sneezed, a violent phlegmy seizure of such force that he doubled over. The butcher pushed a napkin at him. Everyone was sneezing, it was fucking disgusting. Even the cop who finally picked up the phone was sneezing. Send someone over my ass, half the force was probably home sniffling into their hankies like pussies to avoid dealing with the looters. Even the burrito-smelling Jesus freak who hung out in front of the 7-11 stayed home today.
Todd sneezed again. The butcher shoved another napkin in his hand and wondered what the fuck was going on.
* * *
The hospital’s closed? How can a fucking hospital be fucking closed? Fuck. Come on, kid, I’ll carry you.
* * *
Kid. Todd. Wake up. You gotta eat something. C’mon, wake up, Todd, you little bastard. You gotta eat.
Please, I’m sorry about the bastard thing. Just wake up. Todd.
* * *
The butcher sat among the decaying meat in his one-time freezer and sneezed. The gunshot was insignificant, really, when you think about it.
By Lea Anne Stoughton
Bullets slammed into the side of the van. One twothreefour. Five. Rachel gave a small shriek as the window shattered above her head. Shards twinkled in her hair and her hands shook. Becky noticed she had managed to keep hold of the gun. Small favors, she thought.
In the lull, Becky slid up a few inches to look out her window. There were more now, at least three by the basketball court, plus the ones who were wrecking the paint job on the passenger’s side. At least they weren’t trying to negotiate anymore. The dude with the megaphone must be new to the job—the thing kept squealing. Becky had almost surrendered just to get it to stop.
The sirens in the distance grew louder, a bored droning wah-wah-wah that reminded Becky of the adults in a Peanuts cartoon. Laughter burst from her in a rush. Rachel was silent a moment, then joined in with a flurry of giggles.
“Hey Rachel,” she said, her voice still thick with laughter. “Remember last summer when the kids talked us into that damn pool party?”
Rachel swiped her hand across her eyes. “Hell yeah, I do. It was only the worst party ever. I still can’t figure out how that cat got in the pool.”
“And the ice cream? Holy shit, it was everywhere.” Something was going on outside. Becky could hear car doors and men talking. She wanted to look again but didn’t dare.
Becky shifted. They would have to make a move soon. If she could just see…
Becky sighed. “I don’t know. I really don’t. We just went out to get the—”
Clank. Becky felt the gas before she saw it. Water and snot poured from her eyes and nose. Rachel was coughing and gagging, the gun dropped to one side, forgotten now. She scrabbled at the door and managed to open it. Becky saw her collapse on the pavement.
Well. Becky slammed the gearshift into drive. Still slumped low in the seat, she stomped the gas pedal, yanked the wheel left, and hoped the cars hadn’t moved.
As her vision narrowed and the world grew quiet, Becky saw something red and sticky drip down the windshield. Ice cream.
By Nicole Cater
This could just as easily be titled “The Evolution of Love.” And really, who doesn’t like a good sequel? Fredo came home and just like his unusual brindley outside, he showed us his unusual gentle soul inside. Many Chihuahuas get a bad rap. They are high-strung, yippy barking dogs with no social skills. Oh, but not my dearest. He has a deep bark that issues forth from his strong barrel chest, but he seldom uses it. He is a lounge lizard, a couch potato, the ultimate lump. You can put him somewhere, leave and hours later, there he will be. Once he is introduced to a new person, he has made a friend for life, except for the ladies. Fredo loves the ladies; he doesn’t wait to be introduced. He just walks up and flirts his wiggly little butt off.
Not long after he came home, I realized Fredo was a genius, and that he did not always use his powers for good. You may think I’m bragging, but I’m not. I’m being honest. I enrolled him in an obedience class. It took him two tries to respond to “look at me.” The second class was teaching how to sit. Fifteen minutes in, he was sitting and wondering what the deal was with all the other schmoes. I decided then and there he was too good for this class. These dogs were amateurs. My dog was skilled. He needed personal attention, not some trainer distracted by mentally slow dogs.
Sitting was just a basic move. After a day, he was sitting pretty; straight up, paws clasped to his chest. He can do this for as long as you hold out the treat. Two days later he was giving high fives. He is way too cool to shake hands. His next achievement was the up and around, basically dancing in a circle. He commando crawls on the carpet. He does the circus walk, following you in dancing steps. He can also do it in reverse. He rolls over, but only on soft surfaces. I can’t say I blame him for that. His standing record is eight times in a row. The truly amazing thing is he does all of this by hand signals alone. You don’t have to say a word.
He loves to ride in bags. If you set one down and open it up, he’ll climb right in. And he won’t get out until he goes somewhere, even if you just walk him around the house. He’s learned the meaning of “inside bark” and that apartment buildings are not the place for outside barks. He has a large wardrobe, and he actually likes wearing clothes. When presented with a sweater, he even pokes his head through himself.
Like I said, he has been known to use his skills for evil. If another dog takes a toy from him, simply because he has it, he will go and get another toy, tricking the dog into taking the new toy so he can rescue his old one. At dinner time, he’s been known to finish his food, go to the picture window and start barking. When the other dogs run to see what the commotion is, he’ll run back into the kitchen and eat their food; helping himself to a little extra dinner. In the summer, he loves to lie outside in the heat, getting his tan on. He won’t come when called, and when you pick him up (which inevitably he will make you do), he will go boneless; flopping his dead weight around to frustrate you into leaving him to his peace.
But these are mere parlor tricks. Fredo does these to get what he wants, which is usually food. But I will reiterate; Fredo is a genius. He has a job. He knows there are actions required of him. The reward for his job is love, loyalty and care. And he performs his job for the same reasons.
When I was diagnosed with Bi-Polar Disorder, medication only helped so much with the stress and the anxiety. What did help was Fredo. And so he went through a new kind of training. He learned to come running when he heard the dog clicker. That meant I was in trouble and needed him. He learned how to go into public places with me, staying right by my side. He was taught how to gauge my anxiety level and when to act as a buffer between me and other people; he knows when it’s time to lead me out of situations that I’m on the verge of not handling. He can sit completely still while I hold him during a panic attack as long as I need too. And though he doesn’t always enjoy it, he is the perfect little spoon when I just need contact, cuddling, and a little furry love. Not to mention he looks dashing in his official uniform.
Although his status as a therapy dog allows him to go anywhere, due to his impeccable manners, he is often requested to attend events. He has standing invitations at all of my friends’ houses. He has been invited to church, he went to my work, and he attends parties. He goes to family gatherings.
The truth is. I saved Fredo. And then he turned around and saved me back. We are symbiotic. We cannot exist apart. The night I saw his picture, I finally became a believer in love at first sight. But there was no way I could know from that picture, from that first meeting, the actual depths of love one can have. If a dog can be a soul mate, then Fredo is mine. He is my love, my entertainer, my protector, my solace. It may sound silly that a dog taught me just how divine a pure love can be. But at least I learned. And for that, I owe him everything.
It is on the far side of 11 pm. The only glow in my room emanates from the computer screen, tinting the swirls of cigarette smoke that curl around my head to travel out the window into the frigid March air. I miss my dog. She is a beautiful miniature Schnauzer named Elsie April. I had the bad fortune to let my husband buy her, with his checkbook, before our marriage. I may have taken care of her every whim, but the receipt and the law says she is his. So I do what I’ve been doing for the past six months when her absence in my bed becomes too much to bear; I look at Petfinder.
Every dog should have a home. So I look at the young adult little males. They are mops of fur that scream high maintenance. Their bios tell of not playing well with others, having difficulty with toilet training, kid-haters, and cat warriors. Since my divorce, I’ve moved in with my mother, and she has a wonderful dog, Trevor, the world’s kindest, gentlest, most beautiful schnauzer. He is my bubby and I love him. But he is not my dog; he is my mother’s dog. And so I look at pictures of mops. White mops, black mops, speckled mops, curly afroed poodles, obese dachshunds, wall-eyed shih tzus, yippy Pomeranians, it seems the whole high-strung gang is here.
And then I stop. I am stopped. A force beyond me has taken control and left me immobile. It’s a dog, full body perpendicular to the camera, head looking jauntily over his shoulder. He’s a Chihuahua, but an old-fashioned, scoff at your AKC Standards, Chihuahua. He is amazing. He needs a white linen suit, Panama hat, and jutting cigar. But no, that would only cover up the true nature of his outward beauty. He is a brindle! His fur is streaked with luscious chocolate browns, tiger black stripes, and toffee-colored patches. He has the Chihuahua deer head, as opposed to the apple head, with a long dignified snout, thin shapely face, and perfectly proportioned forehead.
His name is Burrito and he is homeless, a victim of the housing market crash. I have willingly abandoned sleep now. Everyone knows small dogs get snapped up from shelters. It is impossible that the rarest of the rare, a brindle Chihuahua, will still be available. Eight AM will never come. Instead, I spent the slowly creeping time reading his biography over and over. “Housebroken, well trained, good with kids, social, likes dogs and cats.” This is the perfect specimen. If I can’t have him, I’ll die.
When morning rolls around, I’m reassured the yes, Burrito is still in residence in the shelter. I am faxed a 10-page adoption application. In between ridiculous and pointless requests from my over-micromanaging boss, I arrange for medical records and histories on Elsie, Trevor, and my cat Artie. After I send all the information back, I worry enough to pull my hair out. Artie has never had rabies or distemper shots. She’s an indoor cat; she’s never even felt grass. She’s only ever been exposed to Elsie and Trevor who always get their shots in a timely manner. I email the shelter with just short of a begging tone. If they will only give me the opportunity, I will get Artie vaccinated, I promise, I swear, I’ll sign it in blood. “Not necessary,” they tell me.
I make an appointment to drive from Rock Island to Iowa City, where Burrito resides. Actually, my mom drives. Because my Honda needs a new muffler, again. And because no matter what I want, what Burrito may want, what my mother may accept, the reality is the nub-tailed, docked-eared, four-pawed, silver-haired gent in the back seat is the one who really gets to make this decision. All the paperwork, all the medical reports, all the driving, any bonding that may take place, it could all be for naught. For though Trevor has never been known to be disagreeable, he does have his moments. I give him a pep talk on the ride there.
“Don’t you want a friend, Bubby? No, Artie doesn’t count, she scares you, and she’s not your friend. Burrito would be your friend. Remember how Elsie was your friend? Well this time, no one could take your friend away! He would always be there. At least try and like him Bub. They say he’s friendly. You’re friendly too. He’s a good looking dog. No, I know, not as handsome as you, no dog is. Just try, okay? Try for Sissy?”
My heart sank when I saw the “shelter.” I am used to professional, public shelters with dog runs, cat rooms, large buildings dedicated to care and proper placement of wonderful animal in “forever” homes. This made me sick. In the back of a pet store, there was a 20X7 area designated for the keeping of dogs. They were housed in crates, the kind you buy at the pet store to keep your dog in while you’re at work. They were stacked five high with a narrow lane running down the middle so you could access the door. Burrito’s crate was so small he couldn’t stand up all the way. I was relieved when a volunteer pulled him out and walked him a half block down to the park to meet Trevor on neutral territory.
Trevor and Burrito peed on the same tree. Then they proceeded to ignore each other for a half hour. The shelter volunteer declared it a success and Burrito’s leash was given to me to walk back to the shelter to complete the adoption process. As I waited in line, I learned more about my new little guy. Far from being snatched up right away, he had lived in that tiny cage for a month. He had quite the interesting life. He started out as a hobo. He was adopted, but the family lost their house. Two girls took him in, but had to abandon him when their landlord found out they were violating a no-pets policy. None of this mattered anymore. He was coming home, home furever. To prove it, he clutched my hands as I rubbed his belly.
As we all piled into the car and marveled over our new family member, one thing became glaringly obvious. This was a very serious dog. He had one facial expression: intense. How could someone give such a serious dog such a fun and playful name as Burrito? It didn’t work. We had to change it. Truth be told, I don’t think he minded. I can clearly picture him saying “Look at this dumbass name they gave me!” And so we started trying names out. Juan, Paco, Philippé, José, so many Hispanic names to choose from, what were we to do? And then mom said Fredo. Ears that had been perfectly relaxed perked up and he looked around. “Yes, are you talking to me?” Fredo it most certainly was.
After a good bath and a trip to PetSmart (where an obnoxious lady informed the entire store that the newly minted Fredo was most definitely NOT a Chihuahua because he was a brindle) we lay snuggled in bed. As he slept in peace for the first time in months, I couldn’t help but think “What did I just do? This is a life for which I am now responsible. It’s not a pair of shoes that I can take back if I don’t quite like the color.” But then he snuggled his little back to my chest. I let my deep breathing match his own. And as I hovered over the terminator line between sleepfulness and wakefulness, I realized the truth. I hadn’t found Fredo. He had found me.
By Nicole Cater
I was diagnosed as having Bipolar Disorder at the age of 35. But as the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20 and I think we can all agree that this is true. But when you have an illness that affects your everyday behavior and begins in late adolescence/early adulthood a trip down memory lane can be quite disconcerting. It is an experience that is both enlightening and frightful.
When I was in high school, I worked hard at school and kept a part-time job. I won’t claim I was a model teen. I doubt there is such a thing. But my grades were always good and I was a dependable and valued employee for my two successive after-school jobs. I did buy my fair share of teenage paraphernalia, but I also saved a significant portion of my pay. I graduated with honors and applied to one college with no back-ups and was accepted. My test scores were far above average. I won a scholarship and a grant. I had plenty of money for regular college expenses, but also secured a job in my college town. To put it mildly, my prospects and potential seemed limitless.
In my first semester at college, I was a raging success. I never fit in very well with the majority of my peers in high school, but in college I felt no need to wear masks to fit in. I fell in with a wonderful group of people who refused to be categorized as well and strong bonds were formed. I attended parties with friends for the first time in my life. I felt no need to drink or smoke and I can honestly say that decision was completely respected by my friends. I was conscious enough to know that I was going to be my own person and didn’t care if others didn’t like it. This wasn’t high school. Nonconformity was the law of the land. I finished the semester with good grades and was proud of myself. I even lost the freshman 15.
But something changed that winter. It came creeping in, so quietly and slowly, barely noticeable at first. My roommate left and I opted to keep my room single and so began the war with sleep that has continued to haunt me to this day. I would stay up all night, barely making it through my dreaded eight-to-noon class schedule. I would skip lunch, sleep for a few hours and grab dinner before heading off to my night classes. Lack of sleep made it hard to get to classes, and I began skipping many. I couldn’t even grasp the simplest concepts of Chemistry and Statistics, let alone the more complicated equations. My grades were the first evidence of my downward spiral.
A hole I wasn’t even aware of had begun growing inside me. I went out every Friday and Saturday night with my friends to crazy frat parties. I got drunk for the first time, decided it wasn’t so bad, and made it part of the party routine. I had frequent dalliance with men, telling myself I was looking for a relationship, knowing all the while these boys were nothing but dead ends mixed with physical pleasure.
My friends brought cars back after winter break, and suddenly we were not limited to our small college town. Frequent shopping trips were made in the Chicago suburbs. I worshipped at the altar of Visa and MasterCard, throwing clothes, shoes, and trinkets into the widening hole. And I didn’t just buy for myself; I loved to give gifts as well. Shortly after spring break my parents began divorce proceedings. Another good friend left. The hole grew deeper. Alcohol, men and clothes were thrown into it with reckless abandon. I added cigarettes to smokescreen the hole. I could only sleep for a few hours during the day, hugging a pillow pretending it was a boyfriend that I didn’t have.
When the semester ended, it was just short of a disaster. I failed Chemistry, Statistics and psychology, but did manage to scrape good grades out of my English and Communications classes. I was an AP student again. But where in high school this meant advanced placement, in college it was the much more ominous academic probation.
Things at home were not good. My parents couldn’t speak to each other and my brother was in a rage. I did get a car out of the deal. It allowed me to maintain my status as a stellar employee when I returned to my high-school job. That was about the only good thing about that summer.
My best college friend and her boyfriend had not just broken up, the relationship had imploded. The fact that I had chosen a room right next door to his since she would be living at her sorority was going to make things difficult. I fell into a relationship with an ex-boyfriend. It was a dead-end romance, especially considering he was living with another woman. But there was that hole, it needed to filled, and a girl can always hope. Although I did eventually stop because I became ashamed of my own behavior. The only thing that went right that summer was my ability to pass a math summer course.
Although I didn’t know what it was, it was becoming obvious to me that something was very wrong. I begged my mom to let me stay home. I didn’t want to go back. I cried and begged. Things were so out of control. I didn’t know if I could handle it. More importantly, I knew I didn’t want to handle it. Although I’ve never felt comfortable talking about emotions, preferring to bottle them up, that summer I felt as if I could do nothing but cry. My parents didn’t understand what had happened to their studious, hard working, dedicated daughter. They chalked it up to cold feet and pushed me to go back. It would be better; I just needed to try harder. Come August, my dad packed up the van and delivered me to my penthouse prison.
The semester began with a major blow to my already fragile emotional state. I participated in formal Rush, hoping to pledge my friend’s sorority, or at least a good sorority. Disaster struck when I wasn’t accepted to any house, including my friend’s due to one misheard statement that caused her to blackball me. When the house you want rejects you, it hurts. When six houses reject you, it’s devastating.
After a booze-soaked pity weekend, I tried to throw myself into my studies. I also got a plum job at Lowe’s. But the part-time hours ran late and with sleep continuing to be a figment of my imagination, my grades began suffering. It was the one and only thing I couldn’t afford. To make matters worse, I was advised that the fastest way for me to get off academic probation was to repeat (and pass) the classes I failed. Being on academic probation, taking classes you already couldn’t pass and working late hours is akin to walking a high wire with no net in high heels.
Add in the stress of my parents’ divorce, which was becoming just short of messy, and hauling my ass to class, any class, seemed nearly impossible. Statistics, as all math classes, was a near daily disaster. I had absolutely no comprehension of Chemistry. The Chemistry lab seemed to be designed to simulate all the horrors you would face in hell. And I must point out that throwing a ridiculously clumsy person into a room full of chemicals in glass containers is just a bad idea all around. The lecture portion of Chemistry seemed to be taught in mathematical Sanskrit. My literature Professor had the worst taste in reading material.
From the outside looking in, it would seem the simple and effective answer would be to quit my job. But quitting would mean giving up my only source of income. Unlike the previous year, I hadn’t saved a dime. I also had mounting credit card debt. In those days, every time you applied for a credit card, you received free cookies, pop, t-shirts and even CDs. At 19, I had four credit cards that I was hiding from my parents. I was paying the bare minimum payments. And low and behold, I did manage to meet a decent guy and start dating. So money that was not used to keep the credit cards coming was funneled into dates. His work program wages were no match for above minimum wage job accompanied by frequent raises as I excelled, earning the coveted position of Lumber Cashier/Delivery Scheduler/Project Estimator. And I liked low key dates such as bowling or the cheap on-campus theater. But I craved the exciting, and expensive, dates in the suburbs like upscale restaurants and go-carting. I wanted to go to concerts in Chicago, eat at fancy restaurants... and this pastimes required new outfits. I loved to buy presents for my sweetie. I began to covet the wares at higher-end shops. And If I didn’t have the cash, the credit cards where within constant reach.
And I loved my sweetie, a very nice guy who named me “Precious”. But it wasn’t enough. In November an amazingly handsome man I worked with began flirting with me. Every statement out of his mouth was a beautiful compliment. I soon found out pretty much all the other employees were aware of his hopeless crush on me. I was the last to know. He was romantic in a way that I doubted my boyfriend could ever be. He would pick blooms off the plants in the greenhouse and sneak them to me. He would serenade me if we found ourselves alone in the break room. He was wooing me in an extremely old-fashioned, romantic way. He knew I had a boyfriend, but he asked if he treated me the way I deserved. Did he know what a lucky man he was? And faced with these questions, I realized that no, my boyfriend was not treating me the way I wanted to be treated. After six months, his strongest declaration of feelings was to speak of how fond he was of me. This was a heart-wounding statement after spending nearly all our free time together. I wanted to be passionately wanted. And that was precisely what this man offered. He made the hole feel smaller. And so I went on a clandestine date. Was it love right away? No, I can’t say it was. But it was a glimpse of something more, something that could be, and something that I wanted. And that’s when the bomb was dropped. Why couldn’t I have said I was interested earlier? He had recently accepted a transfer. And because bad judgment regarding men seemed to be a strong suit for me, I decided to do something that I promised myself I would never do. I had a brief affair, because I couldn’t bear to have him leave without consummating our passion. To this day, it is one of the most shameful things I’ve done. But it was the first time I felt completely and totally desired. But he was moving across the state, and I stayed with my boyfriend, mostly because even though he didn’t appear all that passionate about me, at least he was there.
So the beginning of my sophomore year became even more of a disaster than my freshman year. In a semester where I should have been fighting tooth and nail for grades, classes were the last thing on my mind. I was addicted to shopping. I needed to fill the hole inside me, with mediocre like, passionate lust, material possession, pretending I was living the good life.
Sleep was an afterthought, and it was becoming increasing clear that I could actually perform decently without it. I passed one class that semester, a Sociology course. And the sole reason I passed was due to two amazing papers. One I wrote myself. One I borrowed form a student who had previously taken the class and changed enough to make my own. I absolutely don’t condone cheating, but desperate situations make people do desperate things. I aced both papers. Ironically, the one I had borrowed had only earned the original author a B.
I went home knowing what was going to happen. Academic probation only lasts one semester. I was going to fail out of school. As I struggled to tell my parents the last thing they wanted to hear, I threw up numerous times from the emotion. Who was this young woman? Surely this was not their daughter! Not the student with so much potential, so much promise. As much as I knew I had disappointed them, I also secretly hoped that I could finally come home now. I didn’t know what it was, but I did know something was wrong. It wasn’t that I was acting so differently than so many other college students. It’s that I was acting so differently from myself. There were absolutely no warning signs that I would self-destruct on such a spectacular scale. Put simply, I was not the person I was just a year and a half before. Something had changed for the worse, and no one, least of all me, could figure out if there even was a route back.
Once again, despite my pleas to stay home, to give the smaller, and cheaper, community college a try, I was rebuffed. An appointment was made with my Dean and I traveled to school during the deserted winter break to appeal my expulsion. I put on my best dress clothes and waited for my appointment. As the Dean went over my records from the last year and a half, and compared them to my stellar high-school career, she had one question… why? I told her my parents were in the process of divorcing and my life was in upheaval. As I begged for a second chance, I cried, not because I was scared she would refuse, but out of fear that she would reinstate me. She did, holding me to two conditions. I had to bring my grades up so high that I wouldn’t be on academic probation. And I had to go to a counselor. I agreed to both conditions.
As I look back with my perfect vision, this would be the beginning of mental health professionals failing me. I clearly had several of the most obvious symptoms of Bipolar Disorder. These are substance abuse (usually used to self medicate), in my case alcohol, trouble finishing tasks when problems did not previously exist, out of control spending, promiscuity, insomnia, racing thoughts and speech, unexplainable irritability, poor judgment and aggression. Dealing with external stress can often worsen these symptoms. Instead of seeing any of these symptoms, or even a diagnosable problem in general, he recommended being assertive with my parents, keeping track of my menstrual cycle in case I had PMS, stop socializing and following a bedtime routine to help me get to sleep. Perhaps two decades ago, the warning signs were not so clear. But it hurts to know that someone who is trained to look for these problems dismissed me as if I was the author of my own doom. My problems were my own fault. That they were continuing was a sign that I was too lazy to work hard at fixing them. It took me another 10 years before I would even consider seeing another therapist. After all, they would just tell me I was weak and unwilling to help myself. This was my first experience with professional help and instead of actually receiving help I was told that I was a failure and as long as my problems continued, it would be because I was failing to fix them.
I could go on, but it would be a very repetitive story. My point is, now that I know what I have, what the symptoms are, I am empowered. And my empowerment allows me to gaze into my own history to pinpoint when the illness first manifested. For 17 years I repeated a cycle of failure that I laid on my own doorstep.
If it’s true that you can’t begin to fix a problem until you know the nature of it, the reverse is also true: that you are the problem that can’t be fixed. It’s a hard feeling to live with. As I sit idly by and watch those I love the most succeed and fulfill their dreams, I could only blame myself. If only I had known I wasn’t lazy, that I could do everything right and that might still be wrong. If only I had known sooner that my brain works differently. Seventeen years of my life I spent feeling like a failure, incapable of making anything work. Finding out that you are a square peg in a world that only provides round holes is, at first, depressing. But then it is freeing. Because you realize that you are not a failure, you are not wrong. Those holes are not for you, and as such, you, and you only are free to create your own hole. And that is a beautiful thing. Because the round pegs only get to pick a pre-existing hole. Your handcrafted hole will always be better, more exciting and more rewarding. Because it is yours and yours alone. We don’t have to suffer because of our differences. We can rejoice that those differences allow us to escape conventional classification and be who we are. Which is perfect!
To difference, of any kind, that frees us from the drudgery of normality!
By Nicole Cater
I have to drift away. I need to do it for my own protection. I can’t do this; it hurts. I have to sit here and take it and pretend that it doesn’t. In fact, I do everything to prove it doesn’t; but it does. It kills me…because I love him…and I shouldn’t. He doesn’t even want me to. Its constant rejection and I must just be some sort of masochist because I keep signing up for the pain and punishment.
And I’m so lonely. So, so lonely. We were a couple in everything but name. But now it’s all fucked. Why am I not enough? I’m great enough to be best friends with, but that’s the very thing that’s keeping him away from me? Aren’t you supposed to be best friends with the one you love? I’m the one who’s done the work, put in the time, cared when no one else did. All that gets me is “I love you” and “maybe someday”. If something better hasn’t come along…
But why am I not the better one. What is wrong with me? I want to shout from mountain tops that I’m special, I’m beautiful, I have it all. And yet no one wants it. Least of all him. I am space filler for something better to come along and I have to suck it up and pretend that it doesn’t bother me. It bothers the fuck out of me. When you have to watch someone you love not just walk away from you, but do it with another woman, and want you to actually still be involved, it’s like a knife in the heart every moment.
It’s not okay. I can’t do it. The pain is excruciating. I’m not strong enough to bear it every day for god knows how long. Does he even realize all the ways that he hurts me? I want to fight for what I think is mine. But that would just push him further away. He wouldn’t even recognize it for what it is. So I suffer death by a thousand cuts. I hear him say things like “I hate that you love me” and “what we did was a mistake”. What it really all boils down to is that he doesn’t want me, but he doesn’t want to tell me. I hate his little cop outs like “I love you but I don’t want to screw it up” or “I don’t want to risk our friendship”.
I can’t do it anymore. I won’t do it anymore. Besides, he’ll be busy with his new girlfriend. Who is not me; and never will be me. I don’t fit in the Friend Zone. I never have. I’m not cut out for that role with him, so it won’t work. The only I told you so here will be to himself when he realizes he fucked it up anyway. I never should have wanted him back in the first place. It was a foolish notion to think that he’d want me.
And right now it feels like a foolish notion to think that any man would want me. Really, am I that bad? I have problems, what person doesn’t? What makes me unworthy of love? I’m a good person. I’m a woman that someone should want to love. And yet, I see lesser women being loved every day while I sit, alone, subject to a life of solitude and I can’t even figure out why. Do I come on too strong? Are my standards too high and unrealistic? I just want to be wanted. I want to want someone too. I want it to be him. But it won’t be. And he’s too stupid to realize that the sex wasn’t even part of the equation. Whether we had done it or not, I would feel this way.
But I will not let anyone know and I will slowly drift. I will leave slowly like the tide, gone before one realizes it was happening. I refuse to let anyone see me hurt about this. It will be my own private journey. And when I’m gone, when I’m lost to him for good, perhaps he’ll realize what was within his grasp. And if so, I hope it haunts him for the rest of his life. Because it will for mine.
By Mrs. Prynne
Can I get you a drink? (innocent offer)
Yes, water please. No ice. (pleasant smile)
Sure you don’t want something stronger? (said with eyebrows slightly raised)
Yup. Pretty sure. (pleasant smile)
I mean, like a beer? Or a mixed drink? Some wine maybe? (eyebrows higher, eyes laser-focused on me now)
No thank you. (pleasant smile)
Yes, really. (pleasant smile)
Why? (truly confused)
I don’t drink. Just water, thanks. (pleasant smile)
Wait. You don’t drink? Like, at all? (eyebrows have disappeared into hairline, utter bewilderment)
Correct. Well, I drink. Water, coffee, the occasional cup of hot tea. But I don’t drink alcohol, if that’s what you mean. (pleasant smile)
That’s the question that lingers in the air. It is rarely spoken, but it is there. Whether or not people think it might be rude, I do not know. (But what’s rude after the previous interrogation?) Maybe they’re scared of the answer. Maybe they want to assume I’m on antibiotics. (But she said she doesn’t drink AT ALL, that would mean…) Maybe they think it’s because I’ve got the religion. (But she curses and cracks crude jokes and I know I saw the edge of a tattoo once…)
Either way, they typically don’t ask. I try to put myself in their shoes. How would I feel, were I a normal drinker, if I offered someone a drink only to find out that they do not partake? It’s hard for me, because I’ve never been a normal drinker. I don’t even understand what that means. Normal. Drinker.
My fear is always that they assume. Or rather, that they know. (She must be an alcoholic. Egads! A pariah.) I want to correct their assumption. Insert the word “recovering” right before “alcoholic.” But know that an explanation is tantamount to social death.
My deeper fear is that they assume more…(She’s an alcoholic. Her past holds dark, untold secrets. Is she really up to the job? Is she really someone with whom I want to be friends? Is she mentally unstable? Can she handle being around this much alcohol? Do we need to get her out of here? DO WE NEED TO GET HER OUT OF HERE? Is she going to judge me for drinking? How many drinks have I had? Well, she’s just a snooty bitch. She’d make all the rest of us feel a lot better if she’d just leave. Sitting over there all sober, acting superior. I bet she was a whore in her younger days….wonder if she still is? Wonder if I still have a chance? Wonder if she’s sleeping with HIM?)
I wonder if it holds a mirror up to their own drinking. I wonder if that’s the reason they never really connected with me. I wonder if they even gave it a second thought. I wonder, after almost 13 years sober, if the drinking dreams will ever stop.
I quit wondering. I am woman, and I contain multitudes. Knowing me does not mean knowing me. They have the right to their wonderings, but I have no right to mine. Too much wondering leads to drinking. Drinking leads to dying. For me. Not for Normal. Drinkers. Can’t wonder about that.
Sips water. (pleasant smile)
Polite banter. (make sure to include everyone, even her)
Laugh at the jokes, they’re funny after all. (notice a few getting tipsy, pleasant smile)
Water cooler talk. (she doesn’t SEEM judgy)
Settling in. (comfortable now, probably means it’s time to go)
Wait, wasn’t there someone who said they didn’t drink earlier? (huh, can’t remember now, need another drink)
Pleasant Smile. (excuses self and heads for home, still sober)
By Sophia Warren
Granddaddy was the one who actually owned the motel in Hernando, Florida, but Mama and Jim (my father who insisted that we never call him anything other than Jim) had put him away somewhere on the property long ago in a gray shed with a hole in the floor for the toilet. He had lost his mind. Mama said it was why they’d put him away, but sometimes I wondered if he wasn’t crazy on account of being put in that shed where the stench of his shit made his eyes water and stream and the air all hazy like walking into a blinding, setting sun.
I walked into a lot of those sunsets as a child. Mostly buying beers and great big 12-packs of glazed donuts at the Hernando Discount Liquor Store where they’d sell beer to me when I was six because everybody knew Jim needed it. He’d shot himself in the foot accidentally when I was only just three and was constantly complaining that since the pill mills closed, he didn’t have enough medication. Combined with enough booze though, the pills he could get put him right again and he’d limp around, leaning up against the exterior walls of the motel, trying to chase what little tail there was around, mostly the two teenage runaways that lived in the room on the far end. I watched them two, the way they walked back and forth from the gas station, their butts twitching in their bitty floral shorts. They were skinny little things. One wore glasses. Thick glasses like you’d see in the eighties, before contacts were popular and girls ditched the damn things.
Sometimes I dreamt about that girl, the way her lower lip pushed out into an eternal pout, her doe eyes magnified so that she looked less like a gentle white tail and more like a pesky insect. She had dark brown hair and she wore her glasses low on the tip of her nose. In my dreams, I’d be kissing on her. Both of us on the ground in the unfinished motel room, the one I was putting a new floor in, so we were just there on the baseboards, kind of damp from the Florida evening and she’s got her arms all wrapped around my body, moaning a little bit, shivering a little bit, not from the cold but from the anticipation. And in my dream I feel like a man. I feel big and powerful and for a minute, I feel like I’m growing, like my body is actually growing and I can feel my skin all tight and my muscles all sore and then I realize that it’s not me that’s been growing; it’s her that’s been shrinking, shrinking down into nothing but a big old moth with big old eyes, its head in my mouth, its wings fluttering about my face, tickling my nose. I jump in horror, twisting around and trying to spit. Then I wake up with my dick stuck to the inside of my thigh.
I’ve had this dream three times now. The moth gets a little bit more of itself into my mouth each time. I imagine that one day I’ll just eat it. I wonder if it’ll crunch or squish. I ate a termite once and it tasted like mint.
Everything changed the summer that the girl from the high school killed herself. It wasn’t so much the suicide, but the way that it made the air thicker, life slower, people just a tiny bit sadder. The women at church frowned just a tad more than they already did. Some forgot to put their dentures in, so hysterical about the whole ordeal, so that when they opened their mouths to sing a hymn, their lips got all sucked in and they couldn’t get the words out right.
She changed a lot before she went and offed herself. Stuck a knife in her neck and waited to bleed out all over her mother’s new carpeting. Just laying there like a stuck pig. The town wasn’t supposed to know the details, of course, but small towns breed big mouths. Within an hour, Officer Jameson had told his wife who had told Gina, her hairdresser, who had told Carrie, her daughter, who told Jennifer, the cheer captain, who told her boyfriend, Tyler who told the whole football team and it cycled until it came to me. The fact of the matter was that I’d already known. I was there. Not for the whole thing, but after she’d passed out. I think she was still alive but she wasn’t moving none and her head was cradled in a beautiful puddle of blood almost like the circles you see around the heads of saints in old paintings. Like that, but made of blood, which is strangely saintly in its own way.
I needed to touch her cheek. I tried the back screen door. It was unlocked. No one in Hernando ever locked their doors. It was the kind of community where if you ran out of eggs you could walk into a neighbor’s house and take one out of the fridge. That’s the kind of place it was.
I made my way through the kitchen, running my hands across the granite counter. Her mother had always had good taste like out of the magazines or something. I thought about her flesh as I moved. I trembled at the thought of its warmth, how I would caress her chin in the palm of my hand, maybe even kiss her lips, coated in mauve. Mauve. I have always loved the word rolling off of my tongue, a tongue that maybe I’d slip into her mouth. I was sure her mouth would still be warm. When I entered the living room, her body was nowhere to be seen, the back of the couch hiding where she lay on the tile floor. Rounding the corner though, I could see the blood, darker than I had imagined it would be up close, running through the grouted cracks, spilling out onto white tile, only its lacquer visible against the black pieces, shimmering in sunlight filtered through the orange tree outside. Her flesh was paling but still rosy in the cheeks. Her hair was matted against her neck where the knife protruded, the tip of the handle resting on the floor, her body slightly curled, her legs tangled, her dress high on her thighs. I leant down and lifted the hem of her dress. Her underwear were a cherry red, cotton with lace trim. I ran my finger under the edge of lace; it made a satisfying snapping sound as I pulled my finger out. “You awake?” I asked. Not sure why I said awake. What I’d meant to say was, ‘You dead?’ She didn’t answer. Her eyes were wide and frightened. I leant down and closed them, slipped my finger into her parted lips, felt her tongue. It was still warm but she was dead, no breath passed across my fingers. I withdrew my finger from her mouth and put it in my own. She tasted sweet. I wondered what she really tasted like. I looked over my shoulders both ways, glancing into the kitchen to make sure no one was coming, but I knew. I knew her mother wasn’t due home for several hours from her job as a tour guide in Crystal Springs. I knew all. I reached my hand down, felt the lace edge of her underwear give again. First, I only felt hair. Next, wet warmth. She was still very hot against my hand. I’d never really touched a girl, but I had a good sense of where I was going. I’d thought about it enough times. I slipped just my index finger up into her and withdrew it into my mouth. It tasted and smelled like piss. She must’ve soiled herself laying there on the floor, bleeding. I shrugged, still kind of tasting her essence, that true essence like salt. I nudged her body with the toe of my sneaker, checking once more that she was really gone, really gone from this world, maybe somewhere else already, maybe watching me. I hoped she wasn’t offended. She didn’t move. I turned and left.
I had simply come to the house to watch her dance. Every afternoon when she got home from school, she danced in this floaty, dreamy sort of way, shuffling across the black and white checkered floor of her mother’s living room, spinning until she had to sit still out of dizziness. The first time I’d seen her, it’d been an honest mistake. You see, you could walk from the Hernando Discount Liquor Store to the motel in about ten minutes if you took the road but if you cut behind the store and through about one hundred feet of shrubs and then along the side of her house, the motel was just across the street and one block over. You could easily do it in five. And so, trying to save five minutes of my life - which is really quite odd considering I spend so many restless minutes wishing that life would speed up - I saw her dancing. At first, I thought there might be something wrong with her. The way she twitched around, arms shifting around her body in great, swinging circles just seemed unnatural. She shuffled from tile to tile like hop-scotch, but without the hopping. But then again, sometimes she appeared to be floating, not high up in the air, but her feet were just light enough that occasionally she levitated, maybe just a sixteenth of an inch, but she did it. I swear on it. But there was something oddly enchanting about the whole thing- the way she moved in non-fluid motion, like when the television signal goes out and the scene jumps. Like a flip book. Just like that. And even though it wasn’t the most elegant dance, I could’ve stood right there, hidden from view by a great old orange tree outside her window, and danced with her, pretended to hold her jolting body, directed it into a wonderful, vibrant waltz. In that one moment, I resigned to a lifetime of misery. Here was this beautiful girl, dancing and moving, but she looked so sad and if that kind of beauty could be so depressed and lackluster, then what kind of chance did an emaciated son of a drug-addled motel owner have?
When I woke up from the dream again (this time the moth had wiggled its body all the way into my mouth. I was so close to eating it), there were dogs crying. Not the low growl of my old and trusty Max, but the high pitched wails of babies, puppies. They all sound the same really. Helpless and confused. My mattress was wet again. I made a mental note to clean it up before Mama woke up because there was no doubt that she would tell Jim and he would mock me until the end of the earth like he did about many things: my hair, my pale complexion, my inability to spell the word ‘definitely’ - which I am pretty sure he cannot spell either. He would hold up the sheets and laugh as my cum ran down in a narrow, but very slow, stream, leaving a sort of yellowish trail in its wake. I would not forget to clean it up. I swore it, but first I needed to find the puppies. They sounded lost and there is nothing worse than being lost.
They were not in the adjoining three rooms we called our apartment - three shitty motel rooms with one functioning bathroom and two non-functioning microwaves. I did not check Jim and Mama’s room because I hated to see Mama in her dressing gown, all spread out and sprawling like a beached whale. She had been pretty once. Maybe when I was born. Maybe before. I cannot remember exactly, but it’s like the shadow of the memory is there. It’s like I remember something I could not possibly remember. Maybe I just remember the way she smiles when she talks about the ‘good ol’ days.’
But there they were, the puppies. Crying and crying and crying. I opened the door and the light met me, blinded me; I could make out the outline of a cage perched atop the large dumpster across from the motel office, the sun rising over the top of it. In it were six beautiful puppies. Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. I recognized the breed immediately from a book I had checked out of the library for forty-six weeks in a row when I was eight. It was about dog breeds. Eventually the librarian told me I had to take out a different book and could not renew Dogs A-Z. Never did I check out another book in all my life. Perfect little puppies, yipping and yapping and trembling, their coats illuminated and shining, healthy. Little pink tongues escaping out of and retreating back into panting mouths. So dainty. I reached my fingers into the cage and they all greeted it quickly with moist noses and kind mouths. Warmth gathered over me, filling my skin like the heat of the hottest afternoon. I brought my face to the cage. I was smothered in kisses through the bars. They had stopped crying. I could hear the distant highway, their little claws scraping against the plastic panel on the bottom of the cage, which was filled with shit and piss. They slid around a lot.
It was getting brighter by the moment. Mama and Jim would be up soon. Up and up to something. Why were these puppies here? Who brought them? What did Jim and Mama have planned? What were they up to? They stole them! They’re going to kill them. Why, I didn’t know. The sunlight was too red. It was making me dizzy. The puppies were crying again, sensing something wrong. I had to save them. I had to get them away, out of Hernando as soon as possible. Their lives depended on it. My life depended on it. It all depended on it.
The keys to the truck. Where were the keys to the truck? Jim almost always kept them on him, not trusting me or Mama, especially not Mama who seemed to have the terrible misfortune of getting a flat tire every time she drove or running out of gas or getting too high and falling asleep somewhere odd. She was always getting herself into trouble.
I opened the door to their room. It creaked. I jumped. Mama snored, shuddered, and sighed. Jim rolled over and out of the sinking sag in the middle of the mattress. The keys jingled as he moved. They were somewhere on his body, somewhere below his beer gut and above his bruised knees. Pockets. Belt. I prayed they weren’t in the back pockets. I reached down over his body. He was sweating. I was sweating. My sweat dripped off the tip of my nose and landed just left of his right nipple. He grunted. Left pocket. No. Right pocket. Yes. And 20 dollars too. I shuffled out of the room. Closed the door behind me.
I left the cum all over the sheets.
The truck took three tries to get the engine to turn over. It rumbled and rumbled and gurgled and spat, but it took eventually. The puppies whimpered at the noise, whimpered at the way the passenger seat shuddered with each attempt. I lurched forward, a little uneasy. Driving is not my strong suit just yet. Only short trips to the liquor store in nearby Crystal Springs which stayed open later than Hernando Discount Liquor. And only occasionally when I hadn’t adequately stocked the fridge or Jim was in a particularly uncomfortable mood.
I drove past her house and said goodbye.
It was hot. There was no air-conditioning in the truck. The shit filled cage had begun to stink, truly stink as the shit melted into liquid, running along the bottom of the cage and occasionally splashing out on to the seat. Something had to be done.
I pulled into a Walmart. “Now you stay right here,” I told the dogs more for myself than for them. Had to remind myself of a plan because there was no plan. Tried to keep a semblance of normality. Order.
The store was already crowded for the day or from the night or for some reason that I did not know. Long lines at the registers, fluorescent lighting eerily hanging overhead. Overweight and overworked bodies sweating. Perhaps they were all there to escape the heat like how I often visited the grocery store to do, standing in front of the ice cream fridge with the door wide open, sometimes sneaking into the beer walk-in to just stand for as long as possible. Maybe it was like that.
The aisles seemed endless. A young man told me aisle six for pet accessories. There were no pet accessories in aisle six. An older black woman told me aisle eleven. Aisle eleven was tropical fish. I was getting closer. In aisle thirteen, I found things for canines - although the puppies I had could hardly warrant being called ‘canines.’ They seemed too small, too pristine for such a big and official title. In my mind, I called them pups.
Two cans of puppy chow. A large plastic laundry basket - high enough so that they couldn’t jump over the side. Three beach towels with Daffy Duck on them. He always was my favorite of the Loony Tunes.
They were still there when I came back, the six of them dancing around with their twitching a quivering bodies, heaving with the strain of massive pants, trying desperately to stay cool in the deep Pan Handle summer with air that clung to your body, raising each hair on your body. They yipped and yapped. I got into the car on the driver side, putting the laundry basket in the middle of the bench seat, layering the towels across the bottom, one by one; I moved the little things from their shit filled cage and into the basket. They lapped happily at the can of puppy chow. They squeaked in pleasure, pushing one another out of the way, stumbling over one another in their efforts to scramble for the next bite. I left their crate and its putrid stench right there, door wide open, in Section B of the Walmart parking lot.
The puppies seemed happier in their basket. I turned on the radio. Johnny Cash came on. I sang all the way until sundown.
We pulled into a motel somewhere outside of Pensacola. The room was tiny, the shower curtain’s bottom stained with blood. Someone had been killed in the room. I wanted to complain, but, upon checking in, I asked where I might find food. I was starving. Not a single stop the whole way except for one bathroom break near Tallahassee. The woman behind the counter had made me plate of whatever the family was eating, all spread out around the lobby, eyes glued to a television omitting rapid, indistinguishable Spanish. I’d never been much for languages. Tried to learn a few words here and there but couldn’t muster much more than adios and gracias, and even those came out jumped, vowels all wrong.
I brought the laundry basket into the bathroom, turned on the tap and filled about three inches of warm water. Each puppy, I held in my hands and rinsed them, rubbing shit out of their soft fur, more like feathers than fur, matted as if by oil. It was a painstaking process. I rubbed them in washcloths until they fluffed up, little balls of fuzz romping about the bathroom, very curious about what was going on behind the toilet. They cried periodically, whimpering and looking up at me with big sad eyes.
Once I had gotten them all onto the bed with me, still in their basket, I offered them a dixie cup of cool water and another can of puppy chow. The ate eagerly, still crying, pulling themselves up onto the top of the basket after eating, front paws peeking out over the white plastic rim. Joining in the fun one by one until the whole thing tipped and I found myself swarmed by six beautiful creatures who loved me, needed me, wanted me.
The dream had changed. It was thick, the air in my mind. I sweat in my sleep. I sweat in the dream. I could barely see, the moths circled around and around and fluttered to and from my face. One landed on my eyeball and I felt its tiny feet and I blinked and it jumped off and joined the hundreds, maybe thousands of gray and yellow moths. I think the runaway was in the corner, but as I said, it was hard to see. I could see her shadow. Her white tank top that stood out in the dark, like a ghost and her glasses shown from wherever the little bit of light was coming from. There must’ve been light bulb somewhere, but looking around; I couldn’t locate the source of the faint lavender light that danced around the room ever so slightly. The moths cleared away from my face for a moment and she was there on a chair with her legs spread and her hands at her sides, resting on the chair so that her shoulders were all raised up next to her ears. Her legs were switched, the left on the right and the right on a left so that they were almost like the moths, feet turned out, knees all strange and contorted and it looked uncomfortable. She was the runaway but sometimes, in that way that can only happen in dreams, she was that girl who had killed herself, sometimes her neck was bleeding. But it didn’t matter who she was. She looked sad just the same, her eyes all white and her skin all stretched and looking right at me. At me! And she opened her legs further and I could see everything down there and I walked towards her, tripping through the dark, but her face gleamed and I needed- I needed. I stood over her and she stared directly into my chest and I took her chin and lifted her face up to me and she cried and it was sticky when I touched it, clinging to my fingers and she started shrieking and shrieking and I looked down and something was going on down there, something was happening and the next thing I knew, a puppy’s head emerged from her and then its tail and then another and then two more and they were whimpering and whimpering and crying and she threw them to the ground, mouthing something that looked like, “I ain’t your fucking mama. You ain’t got no mama no more.” And they were crying and she was screaming and they jumped at my ankles crying and begging and I wanted her to feed them, but she just reached for my hand and put it between her legs and it was sticky. And the puppies cried and cried.
The puppies were crying when I woke up. One had fallen off the bed and the others were peering over the edge and whimpering, fearing for their lost and stranded brother. Or maybe it was sister. I didn’t look. I pulled the one that had fallen back up on to the bed and on to my sweaty chest and its little tongue licked somewhere near my nipple and its paw sunk into my belly button and I smiled at the little thing. They were shaking. They plodded around my legs.
Four days and the money was gone. They’d eaten one dollar and consumed the rest in tiny pink cans of puppy chow that smelled like shit, smelled like that shack in the woods where grandpa crouched over a tiny hole and screamed into the night where no one could hear him. The puppies pissed in the bed. They cried out for mama into the deep dark nights and pushed against my chest as I slept, nuzzling for warmth and searching for milk.
She was on the ground, knife wedged in her dainty neck. Dreams so simple, just her body across the motel room floor, the puppies licking at her wound with those tiny little tongues that lapped water up like tiny spoons. They stopped crying and just drank it all up and then danced, levitating around the room, little paws struggling to find the carpet, but giving up and just floating about and I just lay on the bed, eyes huge as these puppies moved in ways I didn’t know puppies could, shuffling, twitching like a glitch in a movie where the image lags and just becomes a million colorful lines for a moment. They were doing that like they weren’t even in this realm or world or whatever you call it and sometimes they laughed. Those puppies laughed and looked at me all seductive. And the more they drank, the more they danced and the more they danced, the more they seduced. And I woke up aching all over because I needed so much.
A puppy was on my chest and she was right there, on my chest, looking at me with great dark eyes and it didn’t speak, the puppy didn’t speak, but there it was, there she was. And I checked the others and they were there and she was there. And they danced in the daytime too, especially when I was in the shower, danced across the black and white tile, swerving around one another, jerking this way and that. And sometimes I tried to dance too, but I couldn’t levitate and I needed to levitate. I needed to fucking levitate because why could they? And I couldn’t? Why was I so pathetic? How? How could this have happened?
And they lapped up that blood every night until her face turned blue, until there was nothing left, the muscles drained, and the knife slipped out of her neck and on to the floor and it thudded right there, right there on the thin carpet and the puppies danced around it, cutting their little paws on it and I didn’t know what to do anymore because it wasn’t safe and she was slipping away and the puppies had grown plump and swollen with her life.
I filled the tub with six inches of cold water the first one squealed as I put it in and held it down and it fought against my hands and its siblings cried and bubbles came up to the surface and it struggled and struggled until it went limp and I lay it on the black and white checked tile and I looked at it and its siblings nudged it with their tiny noses and licked its shoulder, its soft wet fur.
I picked up the next one and it squealed and struggled and it bit my hand and blood ran into the water, but it was cold so it stopped bleeding real quick and the pup trembled, that little pup trembled under the weight of my thin hands that had grown thinner and paler from no food to eat and I laid it down next to its brother and I did it, just like that for each one until six pups laid across that tile and they looked like sleepy wet things. I picked one up and looked into its eyes and she was still there. She wasn’t gone. Still breathing in this little thing and I needed her. Frantically, I ran into the bedroom. She was going to slip away. I needed her now. I needed her now. I needed her in me. I started screaming. I started wailing, rummaging. Something sharp. Fast. Something now. I needed- Oh, I needed. I shook with the thought of all that I needed. I found a wire hanger already coated in blood and I wondered why, but didn’t wonder too much, and I ran into the bathroom and I stabbed that little pup, the one she was in, the one I needed right in its little neck and blood trickled out and I pushed my finger to it and put my finger into my own mouth and sucked and I felt myself lift from the ground and begin to tremble and shake and dance. I glitched and lurched and twisted and contorted and the puppies slept. And I had what I wanted.
But there was no joy left on this godforsaken earth.
By Nicole Cater
Oh, so many family gatherings… so many wonderful times… so much drama! I like to joke that my family puts the “fun” in dysfunctional; but we don’t. We’re a good family, probably better adjusted than most. There is so much love, support, and humor; I feel blessed to have my family.
But the gathering I’m talking about is bittersweet. My aunt and godmother Loretta Schoessel was a remarkable woman. Smart, thoughtful, generous, caring, and had a near-wicked sense of humor. She lived in the small town of Hastings, Michigan for decades. Her daughter, my cousin Susan, was not only family, but a dear friend. I often made the trip over long weekends to see my family in Michigan. Aunt Loretta, familiar with my problems, never failed to slip some small present into my luggage that I would find upon my return. Her giggle at funny situations was a balm to the soul. She would do anything to help anyone. She was that woman who you lament they just don’t make anymore.
Sadly, Aunt Loretta lost her second battle with breast cancer in August 2011. We knew she was leaving us; it was only a matter of time. We wished her peace; she deserved it. All the same, she was such a valuable member of our family, how could we let her go? In the end, it was she who comforted us.
In my last phone call with her, as I fought back tears, all she wanted to talk about was that she wanted me to be okay; she wanted to make sure I would take care of myself. She knew she was going to her ultimate reward. It was the fate of those she loved that worried her, never her own.
And then she was gone. Mother, grandmother, sister, aunt, friend, teacher, volunteer, and leader: How could she leave us? Knowing it is going to happen doesn’t make it any easier. Hastings is a small town. It mourned her loss with her family. She had the love of every single person who encountered her. Her passing would be treated with love and honor, of a type I’ve never seen before and am unlikely to see again.
The community spared nothing to accommodate her grieving family. At the time, there was one hotel with three rooms in the entire town. This was hardly enough to accommodate sisters, brothers, nieces, and nephews. The community opened its doors. Houses were made available to us from local residents. Upon my arrival with my mother, we found ourselves sharing a beautiful, peaceful lake house with my Uncle Ron, Aunt Carolyn, and cousins, Matt, Katie, and Mark. Close quarters have never bothered our family, and it was healing for us to be together. Although our bonds are close, we are still spread out over the Midwest and Northeast and the time together allowed us not only to catch up, but share our favorite memories of “Growing up Schoessel” and laugh over the wonderful sense of humor Loretta possessed.
You expect grandparents to pass away in your lifetime. But aunts and uncles are like your parents. It’s impossible to think of them leaving us. I grieved not only for my loss, but the hole in the hearts of my cousins, Tim, Scott, and Susan, along with their children. None of us would ever be the same after this loss. As much as we knew it was inevitable, it was also inconceivable.
I am ashamed to say I didn’t know how to help my dear cousins with this. Susan, my cousin by blood, friend by choice, sister by heart, was heartbroken and I didn’t know what to do. I had my mom. Suddenly, she didn’t have hers. Through the long grueling hours of visitation, I begged her husband and hometown friends to take care of her. Our family turned out strong children. But were any of us strong enough for this? I didn’t know. How were any of us supposed to live in a world without Loretta? All I could say was I love you. It didn’t feel like enough.
I was overwhelmed by the out-pouring of love. The funeral was held in a school auditorium. As the family entered last, trailing the casket, we were awestruck by this amazingly large group of people. It seemed the whole town had come to bid Loretta farewell. Businesses had closed. My uncle’s past and present swim team members showed up en masse. The rumor was that more than 500 had attended. And the service was equally beautiful. Loretta was memorialized by her children, brother, and pastor. It was two hours of gut-wrenching emotion. Tears were inevitable.
The family was given a police escort to the gravesite. Such an amazing show of respect and love that I doubt many see, and I’m sure I will never experience again. The small, intimate graveside service was followed by a luncheon so large it filled the school cafeteria. Words cannot express the comfort that the family felt knowing how many people loved us and cared enough about Loretta to stop their own lives for a day and care for her family.
As lunch wound down, the family was alerted to one final mission. Loretta had left a set of instructions for us. We would honor them to a tee. Family and closest friends descended upon my cousin, Tim’s house. “Share butter pecan ice cream cones with each other” was Loretta’s final instruction. Her love for butter pecan was legendary. We lined up to receive our cones as this family gathering finally took on a celebratory air. This, these few precious hours all together, was Loretta’s final wish for us: Come together, remember her, and be happy. For she was in heaven, she had her reward. It was time for us to celebrate that, to be comforted by that fact and to remember what is most important in this life, the love that surrounds us when family comes together. Loretta also had her priorities straight. She knew what we needed most to deal with her passing. We needed each other.
This is our new Wicked Short Stories page with submissions from various Authors. Please look for bio-snippets about the Author at the bottom of the various pieces. Enjoy!