i feel like a ghost town. empty buildings with shuttered windows around a patchy courtyard. no wind, no rain, nothing here anymore.
Author: M. Espinosa
the big game
sun crawls toward a snow-capped ridge. someone’s built snowpeople on top of the frozen pond. the moon hides behind trees doing their morning stretches. a fire pit, half-buried, watches the sky change from blue-black to peach to grey. engines from the highway mix with the yawn from the forest, mix with the whisper from the stream underfoot.
Have I always been this way?
Each section is based on the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the day from January, 2023.
I. wardour street, adj. and n.
Back in ninth grade, after our English class read Romeo & Juliet, Dom kept speaking in fake medieval diction. She’d spend lunch telling me about the latest episode of Riverdale with the occasional ‘ye’ and ’t’was,’ a smattering of ‘-eth’ suffixes.
II. Ideogenous, adj.
Dom used to write stories all the time. During class, her laptop would be open for ‘note-taking,’ but she would be deep into her latest Reylo fanfiction.
III. collabo, v.
The first time Dom spoke to me, she asked me to help with a piece she wanted to play for the solo and ensemble contest. She was taking a mute out of her trumpet; I was putting the marimba part of “So What” in my folder. The hollow sound of her emptying her spit valve filled the time it took me to understand. I never thought I was that good or noticeable. I accepted the opportunity.
IV. amigurumi, n.
I have a squid on my desk, small, purple, a tiny grin, that Dom knit me before she moved away. I think about messaging her every time I see it, but get too afraid to type anything.
V. groceteria, n.
The morning of the solo and ensemble contest, Dom said we needed to stop at the Haggen by my apartment complex to get AriZona Arnold Palmers for good luck. She walked across the store like her life depended on it. The cashier complimented our suits. We chugged them in the high school parking lot.
VI. misogamous, adj.
Dom texted me during winter break our sophomore year upset her mom got engaged to her boyfriend. She didn’t understand how her mom could happily participate in such patriarchal traditions.
VII. y’alls, pron.
When the judge announced our performance of “Take Five” won the small ensemble category, the audience erupted.
VIII. roscidating, adj.
I sit at my computer, doomscrolling, alone. Dom’s squid stares at me. I need to talk to someone, but what would I even say?
IX. red queen, n.
She always wanted to get better at whatever she was fixated on. She encouraged me to do the same. She even showed me her earlier fanfiction, which was so terrible she swore to never share it. But she trusted me.
X. cabinet able, adj.
I used to eat lunch in the library. Well, I’d sit in the library during lunch. But Dom invited me to sit with her and her friends after we started practicing for the contest. It was like starting a series halfway through the third season, piecing together names and plots everyone else already knows.
XI. ajangle, adj. and adv.
I remember the sound distinctly: the chime my phone made when Dom texted me to tell me her stepdad got relocated; they’d have to move during spring break. I remember the sound distinctly: the chime my phone made when I learned my best friend was leaving in the middle of our senior year. My phone has been on silent since.
XII. coachy, adj.
Junior year, when my grandpa got sick, Dom drove me from school to the hospital. She refused my offer for gas money, said it’s what friends do.
XIII. blankety, adj.
I don’t have another way to describe it. When I was around her, I felt safe. She understood me in a way most people don’t.
XIV. galdem, n.
For me, it was hard feeling part of the group. I always felt outside, apart. When Dom invited me to her lunch table, she made sure I was part of the conversation. It’s because of her I was able to make the friends I had, the memories I have. She made it so easy.
XV. satoshi, n.
Is this what distance does? Does the past live behind rose-tinted glass? Does she remember me this way: emphases on my positives, whatever they are? Or, does she remember how much she did for me, how little I could return? Does her mind filter me through the windows of an abandoned home?
XVI. cyberslacking, n.
I don’t even know what I’m afraid of. Sometimes, when a professor’s lecture is slow, I search Dom’s name on Instagram to see what she’s been up to. I don’t follow her, too afraid of her seeing the notification with my name, remembering how I disappeared, then blocking me.
XVII. mindstyle, n.
Have I always been this way? Has it always been the case that the walls around me were constructed by me? Am I to blame for my own isolation? How couldn’t I see it before? Why can’t I change it?
XVIII. barnstorm, v.
In the spring of freshman year, our jazz band did several performances at nearby memory care places. Dom was so excited to be a traveling bard, she memorized several sonnets and monologues by Shakespeare to recite between songs.
XIX. bumble broth, n.
The week after she moved, she texted me, asking how I’d been, apologizing for not reaching out earlier overwhelmed with travel and unpacking. Words flooded me. Where would I even start? I couldn’t even find the words for what I was feeling.
XX. cruyff turn, n.
For a while, I tried diversion: ask about her day, ask about her mom, ask about Euphoria. Much easier to read and listen to her than find words of my own.
XXI. booze can, n.
I remember the first time I felt the fractures grow. It was a month after she moved. My dads were at a school counselor conference. I raided the liquor cabinet in hopes it would loosen my lips, find my words. The words that came were hurt, full of confrontation, resentment.
XXII. dumbsizing, n.
She didn’t text me for several days. I didn’t blame her. It was never the same afterward. Time between messages grew like moss after a rainstorm.
XXIII. kitbash, v.
The way she’d play trumpet, write her stories— she’d draw connections between unlike things, create something I’d never seen before.
XXIV. durex, n.
We were inseparable once. Each afternoon at one of our homes, homework and horror movies, walks through the parks at our neighborhoods’ edges. We’d share AirPods and secrets before school, at lunch, at games our boyfriends made us attend.
XXV. ramfeezled, adj.
I’m standing at the end of the bread aisle staring at the everything bagels, her favorite breakfast. I miss her so much. What’s the worst that can happen? I already have nothing. I already am nothing.
XXVI. skyrgalliard, n.
There’s a beehive in my chest. Words fill the windshield on my way home. I activate the wipers to sift through them.
XXVII. shockle, n.
We did a morning hike at Franklin Falls the last day of winter break senior year. We packed two thermoses of hot chocolate, drank them at the base of the frozen waterfall. We talked about our families, the future, decisions we would have to make.
XXVIII. chup, int. and adj.
My natural state is silent. It’s easy to listen to other people talk. It’s much more difficult to say something, to be open and vulnerable to someone else.
XXIX. mopery, n.
On her last day, I couldn’t drive home from school. I sat in the parking lot on the hood of my car. She said she had to go, had to finish packing. I watched her drive away, then sat and cried until security came to shoo me away.
XXX. send-forth, n.
I helped organize a party to tell Dom goodbye. We marathoned Star Wars movies, ate bagels, drank Arnold Palmers. It was the last time we were in the same room, the last time we laughed together.
XXXI. navel-gazer, n.
Stare at the ceiling for an hour, dig my phone out of my bag, take a deep breath, open Instagram, find her profile, hit follow, open a message, type the first words that come to me, hit send, enable sound, throw my phone across the living room. It dings.
breakfast with a bald eagle
downed spruce trunk under green water a steady current rain drops on their cloud’s reflection on the riverbank a bald eagle beak-deep in a pink salmon carcass under its talon thick fog in the tree line at the foot of the mountain slow as dawn a call from a nearby fir the rhythm of a playing card between bicycle spokes frantic brown wings into the air forsaken salmon flesh on the shore for the seagulls
After Feminism Is for Everybody, by bell hooks.
You are 32. On your way to work, you listen to an audiobook where bell hooks talks about how difficult it is to teach boys feminism, how feminist masculinity is often ignored for simplified narratives of blame and finger pointing rather than rebuilding society. You are 27. During an English department meeting, a colleague from another school remarks how good you are at being the only man in the room. You are 25. On your daily walk around your neighborhood, your dad calls. He tells you about his family, the latest news about your cousin, how nonsensical it is her best friend to be a man. You are 17. You work in the kitchen of a restaurant. You mostly interact with servers, most of whom are women. It is taken as a truism: women get better tips than men; you belong in the kitchen. You are 12. During your sixth-grade class’s sex ed. unit, your teacher talks about biological differences between boys and girls. She singles you out for being a boy with long eyelashes, a trait associated with girls. You are seven. Your mom is driving you home from daycare. You ask her about her day. She tells you about work you don’t understand, coworkers that frustrate her. You ask her if her coworkers are her friends. She tells you men and women just can’t be friends.
Can’t Find the Words
After Swing, by Kwame Alexander and Mary Rand Hess.
The nation's pulse can be found in Charles Mingus's fingers walking on an upright bass. There's so much I want to say to you, so much I can't find words for. Have you ever heard Coltrane run up and down a scale, then deconstruct every rule you thought you knew? You're right in front of me, but I can't reach you– my hands trapped in my pockets, my throat dry as August sun.
I wasn’t good at being good
Each section is based on the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the day from December, 2022.
I. carbonado, n.
Um, hello? I hope this gets to you at all. I know I haven’t sent anything in a while. I want to explain. And yes, I’ll get to the mark on my face.
II. finger trap, n.
I need to start at the beginning. You must have known I needed to leave. Whenever I had tried running, something tethered me — feet in quicksand. I didn’t know I’d actually break away. I didn’t know I wouldn’t be able to get back. I’m sorry.
III. amor, n.
I guess it was just that— Dad always loved you more. You had basketball trophies, positive comments on your report cards. He always said he never had to worry about you. I had shit; I had to earn his love. Sometimes, I thought I had it, but it would fade away like the doppler effect of a siren. That’s why I did all this: I had to aim so high, he’d be forced to see me.
IV. dunning-kruger, n.
I thought I had it— I thought I had it— I thought I had it under control. I swear.
V. eustress, n.
I knew what I signed up for— I was going to be in the first group of people to terraform Mars. I had the degrees, the years of research. My name was announced on cable news. I was a leader in our shuttle. People listened to me, asked me for guidance. I couldn’t get enough.
VI. palustrine, adj.
It was like when we were kids, back at the lake, catching newts in a plastic bucket. I always needed to catch more than you, staying out after the fireflies showed up.
VII. perfectibilist, n.
It was arrogant to think we could do better than this. It was arrogant to think we could start over. It was arrogant to think there was nothing here before us.
VIII. soz, adj.
I’m sorry all this is coming to you in pieces. I had to reconfigure our transmitter with spare parts of our landing rig.
IX. carnyx, n.
I took the controls in our final descent, convinced I should do it, only I could do it. I missed a switch, a small mistake, enough to damage the hull. An alarm echoed through the ship until someone else repaired the necessary parts.
X. bambi, int. and adv.
The repairs set us back several hours. When it was safe and I was finally allowed out of the ship, I stood on red earth, saw maroon mountains meet black sky, an overwhelming array of stars around a blue dot where I knew you all were.
XI. rantipole, n.
They stopped talking to me, stopped asking me questions. I could see hastily-constructed walls flash across their faces when they saw me in the hall. I offered to help; they said they had it under control.
XII. boykie, n.
This keeps happening. I always get in my own way. I go too far into the water, lose my balance in the silt. Why were my successes never enough? I couldn't just pass my tests, I had to be better than all my classmates. I couldn't just go to Mars, I had to lead the people who went to Mars.
XIII. yampy, adj.
Dad was right. You are the better son. You wouldn't have put the lives of your crewmates in jeopardy to serve your ego. He never made you attend your parent-teacher conferences. I had to sit there while he voiced every disappoint, while each teacher reached for any solution.
XIV. bretheling, n.
I joined the survey team to earn the crew's respect back. It involved walking alone, away from their bitter eyes. In addition to creating a map of the surrounding area, we were looking for somewhere to build our base. That's when I found the cave.
XV. ballyhoo, n.
I updated the map, sent an alert to the leadership team. They called me to the conference room, where they sat around a long table, cluttered with annotated reports and blueprints. I stood before them, detailed the cave's location; its approximate volume; how much time, effort, material it would take to build a sustainable base. I- I emphasized its safety.
XVI. devil’s coach-horse, n.
There were so many things we- I didn't know: the actual depth of the cave, the small holes within its walls, the boring insects who created them.
XVII. sambaza, v.
Our ship was modular, created to be dismantled, room by room, once a long-term location was found. I assisted groups of people pack, travel, and reconfigure their rooms in the cave. They thanked me for my help, my discovery, made eye contact with me again.
XVIII. dreidel, n.
We had a feast once everyone was housed in the cave, most of the landing rig left as a monument in the red desert for where our settlement began. People laughed, ate, played games. They were so happy. It would be the last time that feeling was shared.
XIX. carboy, n.
The next morning, Hisashi, our agriculturist, lead his team to establish micro- and macrocrops within and outside the cave. He asked for my help surveying the land, showed me all the tubes and bottles for his complex compost system and his set up for brewing beer.
XX. hagwon, n.
Many people invited me to help them, learn their roles. I was accepted again, fully. I was seen as a leader again. I was learning so much. Things were going so well.
XXI. rinky-dink, n.
So, you should be able to see the wall behind me. If it's not in focus, just know that the shelves have fallen over, the posters and pictures ripped. You can actually see on this shelf panel, the holes from the insects that live here. It fell apart slowly. An air leak in one of the rooms deepest in. Patch work covered it, we moved on. Then more leaks, more patchwork, until Gloriana died in her sleep.
XXII. mondialization, n.
Gloriana was the lead of the communication team. They were constructing the transmitter to report our progress back to Earth. Our first report, as you well know, was her death, no explanation or cause.
XXIII. lip-sync, v.
There was debate about whether to share that information right away. There was debate about whether to carry on like nothing happened. For days, we cosplayed professionalism: did the tasks on the docket, said words with no real meaning.
XXIV. zilch, v.
They left no one. There's no one left. I examined Gloriana's body, her room, to look for clues. Day by day, there was less of her, not natural decay, chunks bitten off her limbs.
XXV. christmas, v.
On Earth, I think it was Christmas when I made that realization. I wrote a report, took some pictures, presented my findings to the leadership team. Two of them were absent. We assumed they were on an assignment or were recording messages to send to their families for the holidays. We were wrong.
XXVI. hanukkiah, n.
The next day, the lights went out. Emergency flashlights under our cots lead us through the hallways. As we approached the power sector, there was a whirring sound, like an engine low on oil. When the door opened, our flashlights were whipped out of our hands by a gust of wind escaping through a large hole in the wall. Shards of Tenzin's sweater caught on its rim, their severed hand on the emergency shut-off lever.
XXVII. chindogu, n.
It all went fast then; panic has a way of exacerbating things. We huddled together, surrounded by machines that were utterly useless then. Gathered in one of the central modules, we concentrated our food, water, spacesuits, smuggled weapons and ad hoc ones.
XXVIII. bak kut teh, n.
Hisashi set out on his own, knife in hand, to find a specimen to examine, develop a strategy for attack. He returned dangling a beetle the size of a football by its antennae. It oozed a viscous blood, shade of mulberry. After some poking, prodding, he suggested someone should take a bite to see if its edible in case our food supply runs low. I volunteered. It all felt like my fault. It was the least I could do. As my teeth sank into its flesh, the floor rumbled, erupted.
XXIX. mugwamp, n. and adj.
A swarm of them fell like hailstones, bounced like rubber bullets, sank teeth and pincers into whatever they found. We scattered, ran for the exit, but there stood the largest of them, the size of a loveseat, shrapnel lodged in its exoskeleton, human blood in its teeth. Hisashi and I charged with sharpened table legs, hoping to distract it away from the doorway while others fled to safety. They all fell to the swarm, Hisashi fell when a pincer stabbed his stomach. Sharp pincers, legs scraped my face as I escaped alone, the captain of a solo-mission. I ran to the communications room, this room right here, through a drafty hallway, this room, the last lung to hold air.
XXX. dear john, n.
You’re going to learn about this through an official communication someday soon. I typed it up and sent it to NASA soon as I caught my breath. But, I needed you to hear it from me. I needed you to know I tried. I needed you to see my face one last time, know we fought back. I needed you to know no one else should come here.
XXXI. mukbang, n.
I can hear them now in the walls. They’re going to get in any minute now. I’m not going to make it back home. So, I just want you to know I lo-
Find Yourself in the Sky
As you watch the sun set into the Pacific from your picnic blanket on the rocky shore, head resting on a driftwood log, the sky becomes a spectrum. Bright pink around the sun's edge, dark blue above the tree line. People point at features you cannot see. Their confidence makes you look anyway. They see something up there for themselves, something that grounds them— a tether. Some point toward pink, some blue, some in between. You keep looking, but it’s all opaque.
a body on the floor a pool of blood on the carpet spatter across the frame of a picture someone in a robe with a diploma a chair in the corner under a pile of shirts and jeans spatter across an unkempt bed grey comforter with teal bedsheets a dresser messy with articles and pens necklaces and earrings spatter across a full-length mirror the post-it note affirmations along its edge a body on the floor under a thin white sheet
Each section is based on the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the day from October, 2022.
I. light head, n. and adj.
Today is a new day. I’m going to turn it all around. Roll out of bed, complete a yoga routine with my phone propped against the lamp on my nightstand. A quick shower, a quick breakfast that I eat on my way to the bus stop. Nothing is going to stop me.
II. per fas et nefas, adv.
Headphones in as I approach the stop. No one is going to ruin my day. No one is going to bring me down. Lizzo will keep me afloat.
III. downpressor, n.
Bus pulls up, everyone files on, backpacks knock against each other, people, doorframes, seats. Bus driver’s voice mumbles through his expectations. It’s early enough that people quiet down for him, but I leave my headphones in, wait for his voice to stop, the bus din to return, the yellow dashes in the road to scroll by underfoot.
IV. alieniloquy, n.
The thing about the lines on the road is that they’re hypnotizing as they fly by. An intermittent, off-yellow flash carries your mind to some elsewhere without dimensions in time or space. And when they end at the parking lot’s edge, you suddenly remember you have to go to first period.
V. bobsled, v.
Hallways are full of bodies— a current pulls me right to Ms. Acevedo’s classroom. I don’t remember moving my feet.
VI. rhubarb, n. and adj.
Throat’s tight. Swallow the past, Tori; this is a new chapter. I put a smile on my face convincing enough to fool everyone at my cooking station.
VII. lightning bird, n.
I’m holding steady until he enters the room. His hair curling under the edge of his hat. A jolt in my chest— why do I want to cry and smile at the same time?
VIII. dump cake, n.
I look down at our counter, can’t look up, need to forget he’s here. Ms. Acevedo gives instructions; I don’t hear them. Shay does, assumes the role of our group’s leader. She tells me to measure and pour baking powder, salt, flour in a bowl and stir. I see his face in the powdery mountain range.
IX. dunnish, adj.
Eli asks if I’m done mixing. I nod and xe dumps my bowl into xyrs, mixes. I look up, the room’s colors seem to be on a dimmer switch— it looks like the sky an hour before thunder.
X. folx, n.
Ms. Acevedo address the class about over safety protocols. Shay and Eli discuss how to decorate our cake. I sneak a headphone through my sleeve to my palm, rest it against my ear. Hayley Williams yells about misery.
XI. ice blink, n.
The bell releases us to the sea, a long voyage to our next classes. Stare ahead at nothing; looks better than watching bow waves collide. Mr. Persson’s display for the Revolutionary War overwhelms his end of the hallway.
XII. birdscape, n.
Respite among war stories, since he’s in math class. I can stretch my wings, restart the new me.
XIII. bodgie, v.
New Tori writes her notes in cursive. New Tori nods her head while someone talks. New Tori asks questions during lectures. New Tori has her shit together.
XIV. chugalug, v.
I drink from my water bottle throughout third period, which helps me focus on geometric proofs— tonight’s homework. I get in the zone, my homework finished, ten minutes to spare, an empty water bottle. I ask Mx. Archer to go to the bathroom. They tell me to go fast.
XV. mediocritize, v.
You are never going to change. There is no “New Tori.” You are the same piece of shit you were yesterday. You are alone for a reason. It was obvious he’d leave. You are deluding yourself into thinking anyone would like you. I scramble for my headphones, play the loudest Sleater-Kinney song I find.
XVI. spreathed, adj.
I feel cracks spread across my arms as I enter the bathroom. They become deep, wide; demons rise from the dark crevasses. I feel the boiling spittle drip from their open maws, their claws pierce my skin as they push off to take flight. It burns and I scratch, hoping my nails bury them alive, but they keep sprouting like weeds in an unkempt garden.
XVII. ignorantism, n.
Shay enters the bathroom as I leave, gives a small wave, looks at my arms— radiant pink, thin scratch marks all over my forearms. She tilts her head, her brows concerned, starts to ask a question she doesn’t have words for. I tell her I’m okay.
XVIII. monkey bear, n.
I don’t know why I can’t calm. Why is it so hard to stand still, to quiet the thoughts that clash in my head like marbles against a mirror? I watch the branches on the tree outside Mx. Archer’s window sway in the wind as the bell rings. Everyone gets up and leaves robotically, but I just sit there, unable to look away.
XIX. dark thirty, n.
I see it clearly still— the madrone branches dripping into the sound as we sat in the bed of his truck, watched the sky above Vashon turn pink. My hand in his, a blanket between us and a cloudless sky. He poured coffee from a thermos, told me he loved me. He said he’d never hurt me.
XX. amoretto, n.
I was warm then; I thought it boundless. I wrote his name in different styles in the margins of my notebooks. I lost focus in every class. Doodles— abstract shapes, hearts— left on every scrap of paper in my backpack. I wrote poems, left them in his locker.
XXI. nightertime, n.
Mx. Archer asks if I want to eat lunch in their room, if that’s why I haven’t left. I shrug, nod, but really, I’m not there; I’m still lying in bed at three in the morning, looking at my phone, reading the last message he sent me to make sure I understood each word.
XXII. chuddies, n.
The chill of the metal chair on my thighs brings me back. I regret that New Tori decided her style is yoga shorts and large sweatshirts regardless of the weather outside or in. Bell rings and I’ve eaten nothing again. Frustration builds up behind my eyes; I’m supposed to be better than this now. Mx. Archer throws a granola bar at my desk, tells me to eat it on my way to class.
XXIII. gist, v.
Suffice it to say I inhaled the granola bar on the way to English. I listen to Big Freedia, need to explode to start anew.
XXIV. menehune, n.
How could I have ever thought I could start over overnight, as if it would ever be that simple? I need to confront him.
XXV. yo, int. and n.
Chemistry. That’s when I’ll see him next. That’s when I’ll tell him what’s on my mind. I spend English drafting the words I need to say to make him understand.
XXVI. drooking, n.
I stand outside the chemistry room, waiting for him to show up. I take a sip from my water bottle when I see him round the corner holding Melanie’s hand. There’s a white flash and I feel my fingers tighten into a fist, a scratch grow inside my throat. My water bottle points at his waterlogged hat and shirt.
XXVII. grrr, v.
In my chest, a beehive hit with a baseball bat, their wings bristle against my skin. I fly away before he says a word, before an adult makes me talk about it.
XXVIII. mosker, v.
What was once vibrant, warm, soured, cold and bitter as coffee dregs. My throat on fire, I heave by the mailboxes in the neighborhood behind the school. It’s over. There was never any chance. You don’t get a fresh start. You will always be the second choice, alone, a fucked up girl no one will remember.
XXIX. sabo, n.
He knew I’d be there. He knew I’d see them. He must have wanted me to see them together, to see how he’s moved on already. They’re probably laughing now at what a fool I am to believe there was any possibility of reconciliation, to believe I am worth anything to anyone.
XXX. ablepsy, n.
My vision gets blurry, goes black. I sit on the curb, dig my headphones out of my pockets. My phone trembles in my hands; I can’t see the screen, can’t make the sounds to activate Siri. Silence envelops me. I drop my phone, don’t hear it hit the asphalt. My breathing becomes muted; my chest heaves, but there’s no sound— no air. I don’t know what to do.
XXXI. jack-o’-lantern, n.
A light, an arm's length away, appears, slowly retreats. I reach for the light, a face amongst the dark, which welcomes me, accepts me. Why is it leaving? I reach, lose balance; my palms, knees slam the road. Pebbles make homes in my skin. The light fades like the sun over the horizon. I evaporate as mist in the void.