A Moored Ship After a Storm

Each section is based on the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the day from November, 2020.

I. Spiritato, n.

Rosa sits between
her sister, Haylee, and Uncle Martin.
Tired from the four-hour drive
across the state.

Her grandma asks Uncle Martin
to lead the family in Grace.
He clears his throat loudly,
so that the kids in the other room hear too.

His Grace is long—
as it is every Thanksgiving—
expressing thankfulness
for every event in the family’s year
he gathered from his Facebook feed.

She stretches her neck left and right,
looks at each bowed head
with closed, reverent eyes—
utterly baffled at the sincerity.

II. Volcanello, n.

Uncle Martin closes Grace
quoting the priest of his church

which Rosa stopped attending
her junior year in high school

after he gave a sermon
about women’s role in the home.

She bites her cheek,
metal on her tongue,

closes her eyes, a scream
escapes as a restrained sigh.

III. Pastinaceous, adj.

Grandpa Leo carves the turkey,
serves a slice to each person
around the table,
same as he does every year—

a tradition
passed down to him
from his father,
from his father’s father—

a taproot
reaching down
so far
no one can see the end.

IV. Overberg, n. and adj.

A polite smile on Rosa’s face
as she accepts her slice
from Grandpa Leo.

He pauses, smiles.
“We’re so glad
you were able to make it this year.”

She nods, fidgets
with her napkin on her lap
to avoid eye contact.

When she looks up, it feels
like looking at a mountain range
from a fire lookout.

V. Sprusado, n.

The Walker-Estradas are not a
sedentary family.

As soon as it seems like
everyone’s done eating,
there is no sit-and-talk
like business people during a lunch rush.
No, the dining room is abandoned
for places to stand—
the kitchen, the patio, the living room.

Rosa gets up from her seat,
pinches the button-up
she wore on Wednesday’s shift
through her cardigan,
flattens any potential wrinkles,
adjusts her tie.

A deep breath before
she grabs her water glass,
tentatively walks
toward the patio.

VI. Hot-Brain, n.

Rosa didn’t really plan ahead—
the decision
to drive over the pass
to see her mom’s family
for Thanksgiving was
last-minute.

She was wiping down
the tables and booths in her section
after the last party left—
the Wednesday before Thanksgiving
always nonstop.

All night,
she heard people talk about
their plans—
seeing their families, elaborate recipes.
The hosts were talking about it while
wrapping silverware in napkins for Friday
when the dam broke—
she missed home.

Afraid of chickening out,
she stopped by the Arco
on the corner of the parking lot,
bought gas and a 5-hour Energy,
drove toward the highway.
Her only stop
was at a rest area outside Srague
for a nap.

VII. Cheesed, adj.

Maybe it was
a reasonable response,
maybe it was
because she slept in her car,
but

when she got to the patio,
heard Uncle Martin grimace about
“illegal votes,”
she groaned,
“Oh shut up, man!”

All eyes on her,
every conversation halted.
“Um, excuse me."
She sips her water,
walks back inside.

VIII. Chedi, n.

Solace in the bathroom
down the hall by the guest room.
Rosa places her glass on the counter
next to a picture of her sister
waving from the top of a ladder
leaned against exposed plywood.

She sits on the toilet lid
taking deep breaths to center herself.
She stares at other pictures, souvenirs
on the wall from Haylee’s
white-savior, voluntourism trip to Mexico
with her church group.

IX. Waynpain, n.

Before enough time passes
that her family would think
something’s wrong,
Rosa flushes the toilet for
the illusion of normalcy.
She washes her hands—
pure muscle memory—
stares at the soap dispenser.

She remembered

an afternoon
when
she was a child watching
Legends of the Hidden Temple reruns
when
her dad came in
after working in the yard,
his shirt inside out
over her ears, draped like a ponytail.

“Wanna see a magic trick?”
he asked between gulps of water
from a weathered half-gallon jug.
Rosa jumped up from the couch,
followed him to the sink.
He ran the water. “Clear, right?”
He filled his jug to illustrate.
“Watch.” He paused,
concentration on his face.
“Abracadabra!”

He shoved his hands under the water,
gripped his fists, twisted them like
he was trying to get the last bit
of toothpaste out of the tube.
The water pooling in the sink
turned brown, matte.

“Whoa!!!” Rosa exclaimed.

He snickered,
leaned close to her face, whispered,
“I turned it into poop.”

Rosa continued yelling,
but out of disgust,
as she ran back to the living room.

X. Presentific, adj.

Deep breath, Rosa.
They’re family, Rosa.
It’s going to be okay.

XI. Earthfast, adj.

Hand on the knob of the door,
one step from rejoining her family,
after practicing
all of her small talk.

She freezes.

Her fingers twitch.
Her breaths short.
Fully conscious of how long
she’s hidden in the bathroom.

Move. Move. Move.

XII. Pricket, n.

She closes her eyes,
counts to ten
between inhales, exhales.

Thaw the ice
in your skin,
Rosa.

She gulps
the rest
of her water.

XIII. Spiritus, n.

She breaks through the door
like a pika out of its burrow,
fueled by adrenaline
and guilt.

XIV. Callidity, n.

"Oh, don’t worry. I’m alright.”

Interspersed head nods,
sustained eye contact.
Ask follow-up questions
to avoid saying more
than necessary.

Be a screen
they can project onto.

XV. Ambilogy, n.

“Oh, you know,
work’s work.”

“Yeah, bills have been tough,
but I’ve managed.”

“No, haven’t really
been up to much else.”

XVI. Fascine, n.

To get a break,
Rosa walks over to the fireplace,
a fresh cord of wood
on tightly layered kindling.

She sits on the carpet, cross-legged
like she did as a child during story time.
Closing her eyes,
she feels radiant heat wash over her.

She imagines it mixing with
the warmth under her cheeks.
She starts to cry.
It shouldn’t be this hard.

XVII. Brewstered, adj.

She could feel the distance
palpable
between herself and her parents—

her shoulders and the mantle
accented
with plaques, senior portraits.

A dark marble slab
floating
in a red brick facade.

XVIII. Badderlocks, n.

“Hey Rosa!”

She shakes her head,
back in her body.

Haylee is behind her,
leaning to her left,
a plate in her right hand.
“You doin’ alright?”

“Uh, yeah,”
she stammers, rubs her eyes.
“I was just, uh, cold out there.
Needed a minute to warm up.”

Haylee straightens up, nodding.
“Mind if I sit with ya?”

She scoots over,
gestures at the space
before hugging her knees to her chest,
placing her chin in their crevice.

Haylee sits,
picks a grape tomato off her plate,
eats it. She asks, still chewing,
“Want one? I grew ‘em
in the planter out back.”

Rosa looks at the little bulbs
on the tilted plate, smiles.
“Sure.”

XIX. Reptiliferous, adj.

“You think you’ll ever tell ‘em?”
Annabelle asks
from the bench
adjacent to Rosa’s.

She wedges her mask down
to sip her mocha, readjusts it back up.
“I don’t know.” Her head shakes.
“Maybe.”

“Why wouldn’t you?” Annabelle asks,
adjusting her scarf back over her nose.
“I don’t wanna pressure you, but
they should know.”

“It’s not- it’s hard.
My family’s not like yours.
We don’t-
I haven’t even
been back home in two years.

“And, like, everything I say
has to go through so many filters
when I talk to them.
Layers
of social appearances, Jesus, money-
I can’t just…
say it.”

Annabelle nods slowly,
sips her chai tea.
“They know you’re gay, right?”

“Uh, yeah.
I told them in high school.
It wasn’t a big thing.”

“You were able to tell them that.
Is this that different?”

Rosa stares at
where the sidewalk ends.
“It feels different.”

Annabelle reaches an arm forward,
clasps air,
struggle in her eyes.
“Is there
anyone in your family
you could tell?”

She takes another sip of her mocha.
“Haylee, maybe.”

XX. Molly-Blob

Haylee runs
her fingers through her hair—
blonde as marigolds—
over her ear.

Always protective
of Rosa, even though
she was the younger one
by two years.

Less judgmental
than her youth group friends—
bridges she’d torch in public
if scripture was quoted to justify hate.

A pang
of guilt in Rosa’s heart—
their roles
worn backwards.

XXI. Cockle Stairs, n.

“So, uh,
how has Whitworth been?”
Rosa asks.

“It’s pretty good, actually.
I mean, as good as it can be
with all the remote learning stuff.
Got to save money
by staying here though.”

“That ever annoying?
Like, not getting
the actual college thing as a freshman?”

“I mean- yeah?
I get why, but it IS disappointing, y’know?
Plus, Dad decided to start a new project,
‘cause workin’ from home
wasn’t enough for him—
turns out, most of his work day
was talking to his coworkers.

“Before he started building
that outdoor living room
for Seahawks games,
he’d try to talk to ME while I was in class.
I learned the mute button REALLY fast.

“It’s like-
I don’t know-
like, we’re all trying to get through this,
be better and responsible, right, but
it feels like
no matter how much we do,
we keep ending up
in the exact same place.”

XXII. Footpad, n.

Rosa nods slowly,
sips the last drops of water
in her glass.

“What about you?
How have you been?”
Haylee asks,
nudging her shoulder into Rosa’s.

She regurgitates her rote response.
“Oh, uh, it’s been alright.”

“That’s good to hear.
I’ve heard
it’s been really hard over there—
closures and restrictions
on restaurants and all.”

Rosa gulps.

“I worry about you is all.”

Rosa bites the inside of her lip.
“Well, uh” she starts.
Deep inhale, exhale.
“It actually has been hard.”
She nods, swallows.
“Most of my cash comes from tips;
when everything closed, that dried up fast,
let alone the reduction of shifts.”

Haylee places a hand on Rosa’s knee.

“I, uh-“
A gulp. A breath.
“At one point,
my dinners were leftover fries.
I’d, uh,
tell the cooks
one of the tables wanted
another helping of ‘em,
and since Red Robin does endless fries,
they wouldn’t question it;
they’d just scoop some in a basket,
place it in the window.
I kept a to-go container
under my coat in the back,
and stash ‘em there.”

“Rosa, you know
we’d help you if we knew-“

“I-“ Rosa cuts her off.
“I- I know.
It’s just…”

Rosa doesn’t finish the thought.
Her sister does what she always did:
hold her close and tight, tell her it’s alright.
Rosa does what she always did:
nod, go limp, cry into her shoulder.

XXIII. E-Waste, n.

In that moment—
a puddle in her sister’s sweater—
Rosa remembered
what she really missed about
home.

She thought about
the memes
her family shared on Facebook
spouting love and support
unconditionally,
how hollow each one left her.

But here,
it feels
real, full.

XXIV. Ambigu, n.

Her grandma’s turkey,
her mom’s cheesy mashed potatoes,
her uncle’s rosemary garlic bread,
her sister’s tomatoes.

Warm,
familiar,
home.

XXV. Cryonaut, n.

Uncle Martin
appears above them,
clearing his throat.

A plate in each hand.
A slice of pumpkin pie
her grandpa baked,
a scoop of ice cream
for each of them.

He purses his lips, nods,
offers a plate to both sisters,
who accept their desserts.

Rosa scoops a bit
of pie and ice cream,
bites.

She’s five, playing tag
in her grandparents’s backyard
with Haylee and their cousins.
Sundown. Only able to see
by the lights outside
her grandpa’s shop.
Their mom calls them in
for dessert.

She’s 40, returning
to this house again—
probably by self-driving hover car
or something— maybe
with Annabelle and kids of their own,
who play tag with Haylee’s kids,
and she calls them in
for dessert.

She realizes
she had never
imagined a life
that far in the future
for herself
before.

XXVI. Magnanerie, n.

In her head,
the house was plain,
peeling paint,
full of insects
gnawing at everything good.

She felt, now,
her misconception,
saw the bigger picture—
the soft sweater sleeves
wrapped around her torso.

“Haylee,” she hesitates.
“There’s something I need to tell you.”

XXVII. Amouring, n.

Not ready to say it
in front of her whole family,
Rosa leads Haylee
outside
to the driveway.

On the way, she rehearses what to say,
remembering July—
when the cases were low,
when she told Annabelle,
who immediately drove to her apartment,
despite Rosa’s protests, saying:
“In an emergency,
you have to break protocol.”

That night, after it all
calmed down,
as their legs were entwined on her bed,
she felt
human connection for the first time
in months.
Her head on Annabelle’s chest,
her heart a metronome in her ear,
up and down with her breath—
soft as a breeze through cedar branches—
like a moored ship after a storm.

“You didn’t have to come here-“
she started, waves of guilt in her eyes.

“Stop. I had to. I love you,”
Annabelle interrupted, then
tenderly kissed the top of Rosa’s head.

Rosa started to feel
like maybe
it was worth being alive.

XXVIII. Empedoclean, adj.

The driveway,
a large patch of gravel—
jagged fragments of earth shift
under her feet as she walks.

The fireplace,
a glimmer flickering in the window,
barely visible through
the November mist.

Deep breath,
cold air fills her lungs—
a brisk bite,
the kick she needs to move.

“Okay,” Haylee shivers.
“What’s going on?”

Rosa sighs, holds her elbows.
“So, uh- It’s hard to say.”

Haylee rubs her biceps.
“It’s alright. Take your time.”

“Things have been...
worse than I told you.

“When everything shut down,
I, uh, got laid off for a while.

“In July, when it seemed
like everything would turn around,

“my hours stayed low, and
I couldn't covers both bills and food,

“I was so isolated— couldn’t even
see other people, so-“

She winces, looks away from Haylee,
toward the stars over the road.

A gulp.
“I tried to kill myself.”

She lifts her shaky hand, rolls back
the sleeve of her shirt and cardigan.

XXIX. Slummock, v.

Haylee stares
at the scar
on Rosa’s wrist.

Quiet.

After a few seconds, maybe hours,
Haylee speaks.
“That’s a lot to process.
I appreciate you telling me;
it must have been hard.”
Her jaw clenches.
“Why didn’t you tell me earlier?
Were you afraid to tell me?”

“No, no- I just-
I didn’t want to worry you,”
Rosa stammers.

“Well,” a frustrated exhale,
“you don’t have to tell me anything
you don’t want to, but
I’m always here for you;
I’m always going to support you.
It’s my job.”

“I want to tell you.
I wanted to tell you then, but I didn’t know how.”
She rolls her sleeve down.

Haylee grabs Rosa’s hand,
ice-sickle fingers around Rosa’s palm.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?”

Rosa nods rigidly.

“I, uh, made the decision around 4, when I would have gone to work. A steak knife from the knife block on the counter. I held it in my hand; I could barely think. I texted Annabelle to say I’m sorry. She called me as I, uh-“

Rosa gestures at her wrist.

“I froze, heart racing, dropped the knife on the floor. The clang broke my concentration, and I answered her call. She came over immediately, told me to put a towel and pressure on it and not move until she got there.”

A gap. A space for Rosa to breathe.

“She saved me that day. She helped calm me down, didn’t try to push me into anything— just sat with me for hours.

“I don’t know if it was the blood loss or the heightened emotion of the whole thing or the first time I’d been with her outside of work in months, but I was overwhelmed, lost control over myself— I wrapped my arms around her and kissed her like-“

“Rosa. Gross.”

“Oh, right. Sorry.”

Haylee laughs, hugs her sister
tight as kite string in coastal wind.
“You don’t have to apologize;
I’m so glad you have a partner like her.”
She cries into Rosa’s shoulder.
“I’m so glad you’re still here.”

XXX. Hammer, n.

Her brain may be
where shadows loom;
where memories echo
in jarring fragments;
where thoughts, feelings,
breaths are held
for someone else’s sake.

But 
in the gaps between fractured earth,
in the secondary light of the moon,
in the warmth of her sister’s heart,
Rosa felt like she could overcome them.

you cannot escape what you did

Each section is based on the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the day from October, 2020.

I. Father-Lasher, n.

Grayson locks his car;
its beep travels over the empty parking lot.
He walks toward the school,
shrouded in thick fog.
His lanyard wraps around his fist
as he puts his keys in the pocket
of his raincoat.
 
His steps don’t echo,
and he thinks about that
when he looks up at the flag,
already risen,
hanging limp against the pole
in the windless, predawn sky.

II. Garboil, n.

“Good morning, guys!
Just give me a sec
to click the record button,
since that
is something
adults do.
 
“Al-
right.
To-
day,
we’re going to need our
handy, dandy
notebooks
for our entry task—
I’ll share my screen,
so you can read it
there.
 
“It’s so weird
talking alone in a classroom,
you guys.
Like,
I know I’m talking to all of you,
but I’m just
so conscious of the fact
I’m the only one in here,
ya know?
 
“Sorry,
anyway,
I’ll give you a minute
to write your response to the entry task.”
 
He jerks his head over his left shoulder,
holds it there for a few seconds,
turns back to his computer,
blinks slowly several times.
 
“Did you guys hear that?”

III. Deleatur, v.

It sounded like a gasp,
a desperate attempt at breath—
right behind him.
 
The chat fills with students saying
variations of “no” and “what.”
 
He looks again.
Must be the heating system;
he writes a note
to put in a work order
at lunch.

IV. Hore, n.

The district prioritizes
HVAC issues,
so a maintenance worker arrives
that afternoon.
 
He shows up
as Grayson packs his laptop.
A lanyard, polo, and mask
with the district logo,
denim pants and work boots.
“Grayson Chapman?!”
he exclaims as he puts his toolbox
on a nearby desk.
He gestures at himself. “Bryan Lloyd.
Ms. Olson’s English class in 8th grade?
We worked on that poster project
for the Giver together?”
 
Grayson puts his mask on.
“Bryan! Oh man! How have you been?!”
 
“Oh, ya know, getting by.
Tons of HVAC work lately
between the virus and the wildfires.”
 
“Ugh. No doubt.” Grayson shakes his head.
“Oh!
Ms. Olson still teaches here!
Still has her old room too!”
 
“No way! How old is she?!”
 
“No idea, but she looks
EXACTLY THE SAME!”
 
They reminisce and joke
as Bryan inspects the HVAC system
of Grayson’s classroom.
 
“Yeah, dude, I don’t know what to tell you.
It’s filthy in there, for sure,
but I don’t see anything
functionally wrong with it.”

V. Schlep, v.

“Nothing? Really?”
 
“Nothin.
The building’s 20 years old,
so there’s just a ton of dust in there.
What the issue you had?”
Bryan asks,
flipping through forms on his clipboard.
 
Grayson stammers,
“Uhh it was like a gasp,
like it sprang a leak or something.”
 
Bryan puts the clipboard down,
pokes a pipe with the end of his pen.
“Yeah.
I don’t see anything
that would cause that sort of thing.”
 
“Huh,” Grayson nods.
 
Bryan packs up his tools, waves goodbye,
says he has another job
across town.
 
After zipping up his backpack,
Grayson squats by the vent
on his way out of the classroom.
A dull wave of static. Even. Regular.
 
There’s an ache in his back
as he climbs down the stairs,
his backpack heavy.

VI. Dictitate, v.

A message from Nevaeh,
a student who missed the live lesson
that morning:
 
“hey mr. c sorry I missed class today. I had to help my sister get set up in her class and her computer wouldn’t load teams right. I went to watch the video for your class and there’s something weird with it. It won’t play right.”
 
Grayson follows the link on his class’s page,
the video loads.
He hears himself talk about
notebooks and the entry task,
then it skips.
 
“… so conscious of the fact
I’m the only one in here—
I’m the only one in here—
the only one in here—
the only one in here—
the only one in here—
the only one in here—"

VII. Junk, n.

A dream:
 
high noon
salt air
cloudless sky
a boat 
360 degrees of ocean
 
the only one onboard
 
clouds spiral
sky darkens
wind rain
a sudden familiar gasp
 
He wakes up.
His shirt soaked in sweat.
His lungs empty,
his ribs heave as he searches for air.

VIII. Fun, n. and adj.

Next lesson ends
with a game of Kahoot!
to review vocabulary
related to colonial America
before a test.
 
An upbeat jingle plays
as he reads each question,
announces each success.
The chat scrolls quickly—
ggs and emojis.
 
He barely registers
the blurb announcing
a new student joining the Teams meeting.

IX. Perlage, n.

It’s not there
when he scrolls the chat back up.
The blurb is gone.
The name isn’t there.
 
Was it really there?
So familiar.
Why
her name?

X. Water Thief, n.

That’s where the recording of the lesson,
which eventually gets uploaded
for his students,
ends.
 
For Grayson, however,
the lights went out.
The faces of his students froze
as the internet died,
the screen dimmed.
 
The gasp again,
followed by crying.
Quiet sobs
from someone
behind him,
 
under his desk,
which he stopped
teaching online lessons from
after a week when his legs got antsy.
 
He crouches to look,
soft pops from his sore knees.
 
Nothing there.
The crying stopped.
The lights come back on.

XI. Ethnobotany, n.

A memory:
 
Eighth grade. Winter. Grayson wears an AC/DC shirt under his band uniform. A bouquet of poinsettias strategically hidden behind his backpack and trombone case in the corner of the band room. Going to ask her tonight. The concert ends, and the mob of teenage, tuxedoed Santas pours back into the band room. High fives and unclasping cases fills the air. Grayson puts his trombone away, clasps the case shut, takes a deep breath. He looks over his shoulder, spots her. Now or never. He picks up the poinsettias and walks across the crowded room.

XII. LOL, v.

Grayson steps back
from his empty desk,
hesitantly sits in his chair.
 
He shakes his head,
laughs.
 
“Just hearing things,”
he says to himself.
“Probably just need more sleep.”
 
He looks at the tree line
outside his window.
 
His shaky fingers type her name
into a Google search.
The top result, an obituary.
 
The blinds shutter.
A laugh.
 
H
er laug
h.

XIII. Coddy-Moddy, n.

He jumps from his seat,
grabs his jacket and backpack,
runs out of the room
fast and wobbly as a starved seagull.
The door bounces off the wall,
swings slow
to a stop before closing.
 
the keyboard clacks in the empty room opening a new tab to edit the description and viewing permissions of the recorded lesson the link copied pasted onto the class’s website a sigh floats over the screen and modem as they shut down

XIV. Nyctinasty, n.

A memory:
 
Poinsettia leaves bounce frantically across the band room, red with embarrassment. They hesitate, stutter, then lean forward, their earth shifting under their feet. A silence. They wince, look up in time to see a crater open, laughter erupt like a geyser. They turn away, bump against giant pillars, fall into a dark room that crinkles under their weight.

XV. Participation Mystique, n.

The morning after,
Grayson locks his car,
stands in the stillness of the parking lot.
 
“It’s nothing.
Random coincidences.
Possible the blinds just fell on their own—
they’re old and janky.
Just overly stressed between
 
“teaching, grading,
 preparing for conferences.
Your brain just filled the silence.
Not sure why her voice though.
Probably just a random memory.”
 
Cloudless sky.
A breeze flows by a nearby streetlight,
cuts right to his bones.

XVI. Grand Coup, n.

After three books fall
off the shelf during lunch—
The Hate U Give, Looking for Alaska,
Wintergirls—
he spends the night searching
“curses,”
“ghosts real,”
“how to get rid of ghosts.”
 
Grayson devises a plan:
He will politely— but firmly—
ask the ghost to leave.

XVII. Pravilege, n.

First one in the building,
Grayson disarms the security system,
walks up the stairs to his classroom.
His key sounds extra loud
unlocking his room’s door.
He places his backpack in his chair,
keys on his desk,
then clears his throat.
 
“Good morning. I understand you may have some unfinished business to take care of, but I must insist that you leave my classroom to do it. There’s a lot of work that I need to do to help my students, and I just can’t get it done with you here. Please leave.”
 
faint sound of velcro ripping two eyes open on the whiteboard his phone dings in his pocket siri’s voice says you think im really just gonna leave because of some random bullshit rule you read on the fuckin internet

“Heather. Please.”

XVIII. Art Mobilier, n.

A memory:
 
“So, how’d it go? What’d she say?”
 
“I don’t really wanna talk about it.”
 
“Oh no. That bad?”
 
“… She laughed in my face.”
 
“She what?”
 
“She laughed. In my fuckin face.”
 
“That bitch.”
 
“I know. It’s fine.”
 
“It’s NOT fine, man!”
 
“No, it’s alright. She sucks anyway.”
 
“Yeah, I bet she does. That slutbag.”
 
“For real, though. She’s probably done it with like half the dudes on cross country team.”
 
“You think people realize what a whore she is?”
 
“Definitely not. I know I didn’t until l was out of her spell... We should help people see her for what she really is.”
 
“Yeah! Like start a MySpace group or something?”
 
“Yeah! And we could like take the pictures from her profile, edit them to show what a whore she is, and send those to everyone too!”
 
“I’m on it.”

XIX. Blue Law, n.

after what you did you really think you can just ask me to leave and ill just comply like its that simple how fuckin dare you insult me like that why should you get to dictate the ground rules for my trauma you asshole my business does not need to fit into convenient boxes for you why can’t you see five goddamn feet away from yourself

XX. Slobberhannes, n.

grayson’s encounter with heather ends as quickly as it began
 
He stands
in his quiet classroom
alone.
 
That night,
between matches in Overwatch,
he mutes himself
so that Stephen and Jim don’t hear
him debate with himself
as he orders an EMF meter
on Amazon.

XXI. Woodhenge, n.

The EMF meter arrives on Saturday.
Grayson reads the manual twice on Sunday.
 
He enters his classroom Monday morning,
hyperaware of the meter
sitting in his backpack against his hip.
 
The desks,
once in neat rows spaced six feet apart,
sit fishbowled, inner and outer circles.
 
Cautious steps
along the wall;
eyes glued to the desks
until he gets to the whiteboard,
now eyeless.
 
a pale translucent head rises from the floor in the middle of the fishbowl

XXII. Anxiogenic, adj.

floating above the desks now the figures arms raise their fingers extend like spiderweb on a breeze a mouth yawns open revealing a spiral that spreads wide the web entangles graysons arms as the vortex envelops him
 
you
 
a girl sits on her bed head cocked mouth agape laptop on a throw pillow in front of her the screen flashing with notifications in multiple applications she stares at a page for a group with her name in the title next to word whore she rhythmically clicks the refresh button and the number of members grows each time
 
cannot
 
a girl sits alone at the corner of a table in a crowded lunchroom neighboring tables overflowing with two students in each seat she looks up occasionally as someone approaches the table before quickly turning a different direction
 
escape
 
a girl stands in front of a fulllength mirror analyzing her body molecule by molecule pausing only to turn to her laptop refresh a discussion post in that group where she learns about another feature of hers someone finds inadequate
 
what
 
a girl does crunches on a bathroom floor while the shower runs counting and cursing between each rep the ceiling encased in steam
 
you
 
a girl sits at a crowded table with people sharing stories with exaggerated arm movements and scooping macaroni and cheese out of a large serving platter in the middle of the table she sits with her shoulders hunched hands between her knees holding the ends of her hoodie sleeves over her wrists her eyes steady distant various side dishes meticulously scattered mixed together across her plate
 
did
 
a girl falls asleep on the floor by her bed returning to where no pain lands

XXIII. Brightsmith, n.

Back in the classroom.
Sweating. Panting.
He stammers, sobs.
 
“Heather, I’m so sorry. I didn’t understand. I was just a dumb kid— I had no idea. I’m so sorry. I’m sorry. Please, I’m sorry— I— I’ve spent years trying to become a better person than I was back then. I’m so, so sorry. Please believe me— Please. God, I’m so sorry. I realized way too late how much of an asshole I was— I swear. I’m sorry. Oh my god, I— Heather, I’m sorry. Oh god—“
 
He curls into a ball at the foot of his desk.

XXIV. Noodge, n.

“I’m better now. I’m
better now. I’m bet-
ter now. I’m better
now. I’m better now,”
Grayson says into his hands,
knees to his chest.
 
the figures spiraling maw ripples wavers with a chuckle the webs constrict into short arms the pale intangible shape of hair restricts from ringlets pulled back into a ponytail into a short shaggy cut that puffs out above the ear the arms wrap around the torso as the chuckle becomes a laugh
 
holy shit youre so fucking easy i cant believe it

XXV. Kannywood, n.

Grayson grabs the crucifix
hanging around his neck,
holds it to his chin,
begins praying the Hail Mary.
 
you really think god is going to help you now god didnt help you before and they wont help you now its bonkers that you would have even tried to pray away the greatest prank ever pulled and now you act like youre above it like you never even did it finding god doesnt erase everything you did

XXVI. Fankle, n.

Grayson looks up
from his clasped hands mid-verse.
 
the voice a familiar timbre
 
His hands split,
palms fall to the floor.
 
the face a reflection in a decadesold mirror
 
He lifts a hand, tentatively runs
his fingertips over his cheeks and nose.
 
what is there something on my face

XXVII. Smartful, adj.

Up on his weary feet.
“I— I don’t understand.”
 
for real is there something on my face you gotta tell if I got shit on my face
 
“Are you—
me?”
 
ugh i hate it when there’s shit on my face so goddamn irritating 
 
“But I’m not—
dead? Am I dead?”
 
no one said youre dead bro so fuckin dramatic
 
“But you were— her? She wasn’t—“
 
naw that bitch wouldnt spend her time haunting you
 
“So then— was that… her life…
just a trick?
 
oh no all that happened i was there it was fuckin hilarious

XXVIII. Garbageology, n.

“How can you say that?
There’s nothing funny
about someone killing herself.”
 
oh come on dont act so superior
 
“I— how dare you? I would never—“
 
ugh shut the fuck up you haven’t changed at all your targets did
 
Grayson furrows his brow,
mouth agape.
 
god i become so dense holy shit you wanted heather dead you hated her for what she did to you for what she made you feel
 
sure you never said it out loud whatever dont bother giving me any of that shit i was there i know the thoughts you had i know the hate that flowed in your bone marrow
 
sure you dont wish death on people who wrong you anymore but you havent evolved at all hate groups or billionaires whatever you still watch the news and mumble about the president youve sighed and groaned and wailed at the ceiling asking why he couldnt have died by now
 
im trash youre trash just fuckin accept it

XXIX. Zeppelin, n.

“No way.”
He slowly shakes his head.
“I’m not that person
anymore.
 
“I’m
not
you.
 
“I recognize the terrible things
I did, I said—
I own all that.
 
“I
have
changed.
 
“I donate to charity.
I work extra hours to help students.
I run clubs for kids who don’t fit in.
 
“I’m
better
now.”
 
a pause a smirk a chuckle the figure evaporates slightly with each laugh creating a pale cloud that grows darker every inch it crawls across the tiled ceiling the laugh grows deeper echoes off the trembling walls
 
its nice you think that

XXX. Fairy Godmother, n.

the cloud gathers envelops the fluorescent light dangling from the ceiling above his head in its black fingers small pops like knuckles being cracked as the cloud wrings it
 
a spiral grows from the middle outward exposing the gnarled casing for the fluorescent light at its center
 
grayson feels a gust grow in the room rustling his clothes dismounting the student artwork on the walls fingers frigid as warmth is pulled out of him he watches his skin turn gray as dry concrete
 
labored breath sweat eyes heavy ribs rattle with every heartbeat dark muffled sound
 
a bright light sparks in the center of the ceiling. a beam intense as the sun. the saber swings up and down left and right, dissipating the cloud, killing the wind.
 
Grayson pants, gray hand on his chest.
 
a new figure stands on his desk, the beam of light reaching out several feet from her right palm. it retracts as she balls up her fist, stares at grayson over her shoulder.
 
it’s her. heather.

XXXI. Question and Answer, n. and adj.

Grayson’s legs wash out with
a wave of relief.
He props himself up with one arm,
feels his heartbeat with the other
to make sure it’s real.
He laughs—
loud, gasping, wheezing laugher.
“Oh my god, thank you!
Thank you so much!”
 
she turns, still on the desk.
her arms straight at her side, fists tremble.
 
“But why?
Why did you come back here
to save me?”
 
she steps forward, flows off the desk
like a waterfall onto the floor.
 
“I just don’t understand.
I was so terrible to you.”
 
her eyes are gray fractals,
her gaze intense, unblinking.
 
“I’m so sorry, Heather.
I would take it all back if I could.”
 
she places her hand on his chest.
its warmth spreads like spilled coffee.
 
“I don’t deserve your help.
I—“
 
she opens her hand.
the beam of light goes through
his hand, his chest, his back,
into the floor.
 
she leans in,
her face close to his.
“fuck you.
your blood is mine.”
 
she leans back, balls up her fist,
watches the light leave his eyes.
she sighs,
a weight taken off.
waving her left hand counterclockwise,
the artwork remounts on the walls,
the lights ungnarl,
the blood soaking into the carpet evaporates,
his wound closes.
 
she leaves his corpse on the floor,
his hand still on his chest,
eyes wide with fear, surprise—
a plausible facade for a simple conclusion
that whoever finds him will believe.

haikus for distance learning

each section is based on the oxford english dictionary’s word of the day from september, 2020.

i. delibation, n.

dim empty classroom
desks shoved together chairs stacked
you’re alone in here

ii. situla, n.

yawn walk brew sit
meeting in fifteen minutes
you need to wake up

iii. smack talk, n.

a grid of faces
nodding and mumbling about
low expectations

iv. chin-stroking, n.

should you say something
they all seem to agree
maybe you don’t know

v. bird colonel, n.

your principal
closes with encouraging words
a hurricane’s eye

vi. croquembouche, n.

mailbox run before first class
a stack of cans along the top
it might not be so bad

vii. wallyball, n.

first live lesson
camera chat emails lecture
ricochet endlessly

viii. coze, v.

office chair swivels
does not move away from the desk
vines around your legs

ix. dep, n.

you try to build bridges
with students made of pixels
something’s lagging

x. ruby murray, n.

in your eye’s corner
relics from previous students
convoluted contexts

xi. walklet, n.

passing period
mask up stretch your legs in the hall
see only ghosts

xii. pronoid, n.

no laughs after your jokes
all thirty-eight students muted
you’re sure you’re funny though

xiii. sea-puss, n.

your eyes strain head aches
dim your screens close the blinds blink slow
fight against the current

xiv. gypit, adj.

you cover your desk
with toys you name and talk to
stave off loneliness

xv. yat, n.

use abbreviations
codes other learning tools
make something together

xvi. chritophany, n.

look into the ceiling
a smile there says you’re doing great
maybe just seeing things

xvii. dulciloquy, n.

afternoon classes with
faces tired anxious sad
help them feel welcome

xviii. cannet, n.

last class ends you sit
first time in what feels like days
lump of exhausted flesh

xix. transitarium, n.

fight sleep need to plan
figure out how to help your kids
sketch diverging scaffolds

xx. ambidexterity, n.

talk chat help assess
teacher counselor tech support 
you wear so many hats

xxi. rooked, adj.

cover your walls
with your students's artwork
it’s their house too

xxii. headwark, n.

temples in a c-clamp
eyes gripped in wool mittens
too much screen time

xiii. pupil-monger, n.

wake up the next day
ready to try it all again
always getting better

xxiv. kibitz, v.

a tech issue
try turning it off then back on
a rote response

xxv. nutual, adj.

you blank on a word
wave your arms to convey its meaning
somehow they get it

xxvi. titanolatry, n.

think before you speak
they’ll remember how they felt here
don’t be that white guy

xxvii. adimplete, v.

log in see hundreds
of messages in your inbox
monday morning

xxviii. antennation, n.

sit for an hour
grade respond delete archive
reach them as best you can

xxix. arr, int.

spirit week hat day
make do with what you have
take pride in your work

xxx. ruderal, adj. and n.

this year isn’t
what you thought it to be
dig your roots deep

A Scrapbook for Our Anniversary

Each section is based on the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the day from August, 2020.

I. Chicane, v.

A sheet of notebook paper. Wavy as Saharan dunes. Pastel purple ink in your handwriting. Steady, certain curves. Circles for dots. A play-by-play description of your biology class. Casualness I convinced myself meant more than it probably did.

II. Angeliferous, adj.

You. That band uniform Merklin made you wear. Your smile. The way two of your front teeth didn’t quite line up. Your eyes. Your blonde hair a lighthouse in a sea of band uniforms shuffling around the band room with pre-concert jitters. Your sax strap tucked under your collar. You. Just. All of you.

III. Sitz im Leben, n.

A selfie you took of the two of us in our usual seat on the bus. Spring sun through the window. My eyes squinting. A small heart drawn with eye liner under my right eye to match the ones under yours. My cheeks pink as you lean into me, rest your green hair on my shoulder. Each of us with an earbud in connected to my phone playing “Los Ageless” by St. Vincent.

IV. Coorie, v.

A picture of me asleep on my bed that you took after the first time my dad yelled at me in front of you— the first time you saw how small I could get. He stormed out, slammed the door to the garage, and I just stood in the middle of the kitchen, frozen. You lead me to my room and told me to rest. I fell asleep, exhausted in the summer heat. Tears stain the sheet below my face. The picture is mostly empty, mostly shadow around my head, which you filled with a silver sharpie, writing: “ur the best & I love u.” The first time you used that word in direct relation to me.

V. Schola Saxonum, n.

Your family’s dining room. Every seat at the table filled. A roasted turkey splaying like soaked notebook pages. A container of mashed potatoes swirled and steaming. A bowl of green beans. A plate of beets that would remain untouched. A basket of dinner rolls. A vegetarian roast your mom bought after you asked if I could spend the holiday with your family. Half of my face obscured by the floof of your blue hair.

VI. Chicken-Pecked, adj.

A selfie I took of us in the back row of the movie theater when we saw Spider-Man: Far From Home. The light reflecting off your hair makes it look like you’re wearing half a Spider-Man mask— like if Peter Parker was also the Phantom of the Opera. You’re looking off frame, distracted by the kid a few rows ahead of us complaining to their adult that they wanted to see Toy Story 4. By the second trailer, the pair had left the theater and you loudly sighed with relief.

VII. Ambitus, n.

A screenshot I took of the Form our school made for ASB election ballots after they committed to being paperless. Admin called you down to get your picture taken to be displayed by your name on the ballot for 10th grade representative. You flung your green swoop over your right ear and held a peace sign under your left cheek. Your opponent, Dylan Forster, stood stoic in theirs, arms crossed over their soccer jersey. Their campaign posters used the word “no-nonsense” a lot, followed closely by “logical.” We were sad when you lost, but I was so proud of you for running and insisting on being yourself.

VIII. Sinistral, adj. and n.

A selfie you took of us sitting on the steps outside the main office. Yellow leaves tucked behind your ears, blending in with your hair. The office lights off, staff long gone. Waiting for your mom to pick us up, because I forgot my phone in Rosales’s classroom, making us miss the bus. I’m slumped over the steps, staring the at awning’s ceiling, my face hidden by my elbow, probably mid-apology. “It’s alright,” you’d said. “Don’t worry about it.”

IX. Top Bin, n. and adv.

A soccer field. People cheering in the background. I’m wearing my home jersey, black with green lettering, sweating and gasping for breath. You’re cheering, your face half-painted in silver. Behind us, several of my teammates rush toward me. In the moments after this picture was taken, I was tackled then hoisted up on shoulders for scoring the winning goal.

X. Calligram, n.

I had an art assignment in Supang’s class that seemed like a cool idea for a Valentine’s Day present. To do it, I needed to make a picture using words, shaping and coloring them to make the picture come alive. I had the picture in my head that I wanted to do, but trying to think of the words that would fit everything I felt about you was difficult. You know that I’m not great with words— the letters get all jumbled like headphone wires in a pocket. So, I tried starting with just the picture first and then I could fill in the words as they came to me. That revelation didn’t happen though, because I got so caught up in the details of the cherry blossom branches and the wispy clouds in the sky that the words never came to me. So I just sketched and painted them for you.

XI. Yever, adj.

A booth at Chipotle. Homecoming night. You. A burrito in your left hand, your right covering your mouth as you tell me to put my phone away. To not take your picture. But I don’t think you understood how much I loved you in that exact moment. Sitting under the florescent lights of a fast food restaurant. In your fanciest clothes. Devouring a burrito. Sofritas dribbling into your basket. I don’t think you understood how many futures I saw in the refracted timelines in your eyes.

XII. Bearless, adj.

A summer afternoon. Vapor waves from the sidewalk in the distance where your neighborhood turns away from the woods behind the elementary school. You’re holding a small watering can, a brighter shade of red than your hair, shaped like an elephant, pouring a steady stream of water into a planter of pale dirt. You had bought tomato seeds at the Home Depot by the park on our walk after the last day of the school, and you watered them every day that summer, always talking about how bomb your BLTs were going to be. They never reached above the soil.

XIII. Palynology, n.

Late August. Muted clothes shuffle between tables with small paper plates with small sandwiches on them. Your eyes are tired from the long night you spent dying your hair black with a cheap, temporary dye, rather than the dyes you usually use. You said a memorial is too solemn a place— you didn’t want to draw focus. Your hesitant hand is on your mom’s shoulder, who is cradling an urn against her stomach, who asked me to take “one last picture of my daughter, my sister, and me.” A bee sting, you told me later, while watering pumpkin sprouts in her backyard.

XIV. Acid Drop, n.

A selfie. My couch’s old, floral print fabric. Both of us with Sour Patch Kids sticking out of our mouths. We were watching something, but I can’t remember what. I remember you heckling the movie the whole time, until you double-dog-dared me to dump the sour sugar from the bottom of the bag into my mouth all at once. I groaned as my cheeks tightened, and I coughed. You coughed too, but from laughing. 

XV. Dulcarnon, n. 

A copy of the acrostic you wrote to ask me to homecoming. You told me it took you weeks to figure out how to ask, what to write. You scribbled couplets in the margins of your science notebook, you showed me afterward, saying, “It’s so hard to rhyme every line. Why can’t people just write their thoughts.” When I showed you the Wikipedia page for free verse poetry, you slapped my phone onto the comforter of your bed. “Ugh! Shut up!” you groaned, falling back into your pillows.

XVI. Angustation, n.

A picture of you sneaking up on a gaggle of geese at the lake in the park near your neighborhood. Your hair blending in with the grassy field. The brisk spring wind a welcome escape. You were so busy with tests and clubs and sports, I barely got to see you. I was stuck in my house, sequestered to my room to avoid crossing paths with my dad, having to endure another lecture about some other failure I had committed. You, squatting near the geese, your arms tucked like wings, staring at me with your eyes wide as theirs, were a breath I didn’t realize my lungs needed.

XVII. Observanda, n.

A summer afternoon. In the backseat of your mom’s Forester swerving left and right to avoid potholes in the road. Our hands splayed open, our fingertips dyed purple from hours of huckleberry picking. You wanted proof that you were the better picker, because the fact that your old Costco soup container was more full than mine wasn’t enough.

XVIII. Soirée Musicale, n.

A cheesy homecoming picture that I insisted we get. You rolled your eyes at first, so cliche, but you agreed, because you knew I wanted it. What I appreciate is how invested you got, not just standing there like a hostage. Really, I just wanted to remember the time we got so fancy and dressed up and happy, because I never imagined that I would be able to do all of those things at the same time.

XIX. Delicatesse, n.

The before picture you took of my brown hair before you helped me dye it for the first time. You said we should match for homecoming, and I agreed, because I knew you wanted it. Stress palpable in my eyes— uncertainty. I knew you knew what you were doing; I never really doubted you or your ability, but I couldn’t stop the worst-case scenarios playing in my head. My left eyebrow is bent from me trying to lower the volume.

XX. Meep, v.

The after picture you took of my blonde hair when you were done. Your excitement escaped from your hands over your mouth. Relief palpable in my face— jaw unclenched. I knew I could trust you to make sure it all went well. You made me feel safe enough to do something I never would have otherwise. My eyes contain the horizon, the sun, the ever-expanding possibilities— or its just the edge of the counter and the light above the mirror. Either way.

XXI. Rozzle, v.

A selfie I took of us as we walked around the mall before seeing Pet Sematary. My hand in yours. Fire. My fingers twitched every so often, I’m sure you noticed, with excitement. Fake cowering to justify getting closer to you. Setting the chair arm up to get it out of the way. Feel your warmth in my arms, against my chest. Shushing each other when the movie gets quiet. Quickly readjusting when the usher comes in with their flashlight to check the exit doors and scan the crowd.

XXII. Querimonious, adj.

The art show our school put on at the end of the year to exhibit the best student work. Somehow, a collage I made from a torn up printout of one of my Instagram posts and its comments was chosen for the show. I guess those troll comments were worth something after all? The collage is hanging on the wall, and you and I are standing next to it. I look nervous, you look proud, my dad is taking the picture. After you went to congratulate one of your band friends, he asked me what the collage was about, why I hadn’t told him people were saying these things to me before, why I would ambush him with it like this in such a public place. He shook his head before walking away to talk to the soccer coach on the other side of the commons. 

XXIII. Phlogiston, n.

A drawing I made for you. Not something required for Supang’s class. A lot of reds and oranges, yellows— warm colors. An abstraction of a portrait. No firm lines. More like waves of color lapping at the shore. Frantic energy along the edges, so shaky they blur and fade. It’s you. Well, I was trying to capture what makes you, you, at least.

XXIV. Totem, n.

A picture of a capybara that I got from Google. There’s an adult standing by a watering hole with a few younger ones. You always said you loved how calm and collected they look, how friendly they are to other animals. You frequently look up compilation videos of them when you feel stressed. I know you hate the term “spirit animal,” because we’re white and it’s racist to claim to have one when you’re not part of an indigenous group with those beliefs. I don’t mean to go in that direction at all. I just thought a cute capybara would be nice for you when you get anxious. You’re as calm and friendly as a capybara, even when you don’t feel like you are. 

XXV. Past Master, n.

A crowded ballroom. Rows of round tables, each with four large bowls in the center. One bowl full of crab, the others filling with their empty exoskeletons. Every chair filled. You are sitting in front of a plate with a crab claw lying on it, a small clump of lettuce and tomato on the side, a seafood cracker and pick in your hands. I am sitting to your left, my plate full of dinner rolls, a similar attempt at salad pushed to the side. My dad stands behind us, smiling, posing with a hand on each of our shoulders for this picture to commemorate the end of his term as Worshipful Master in his Mason lodge. A large chain collar hanging over his shoulders, a thick blue fabric the same shade as your hair, which he would later pass to the person who would succeed him.

XXVI. Ex Abundante Cautela, adv.

A screenshot of the first texts we exchanged where I asked you if you wanted to hang out. A lot of non-committal language to give the impression that my heart wasn’t an earthquake. Phrases like: “or whatever” and “idk” and “sure.” I almost don’t recognize the person I was trying to be there. I remember distinctly the sigh of relief when you agreed though. I remember sitting on my bed, breath escaping as my head fell into my pillow, looking at the ceiling and its safe, congratulatory waves. 

XXVII. Bamstick, n.

A selfie from the chaotic din of the Paramount, faint light from the stage rolls over the crowd, amplifying your blue hair as Sleater-Kinney goes into “Hurry On Home.” During the outro, someone behind us tried to start a mosh pit, leaning and thrashing around into whoever happened to be there, including you. You stood up straight, rubbing your shoulder, assuring me you were alright. The song ended right after that, and the thrashing whimpered into a stop, multiple people shaking their heads. 

XXVIII. Coopetition, n.

State Solo and Ensemble Contest stage. Silhouetted heads eating into the edge of the stage. The lights making your green hair stand out even more than normal, which may have been why Dylan had told you to dye it “normal” beforehand. They’re on the piano beside you gently walking through the chords and arpeggios for “Hallelujah,” while you swing through the melody on your bari sax. Your eyes are closed. Not wanting to see the crowd or falling into the song, I can’t tell. 

XXIX. Artotyrite, n.

The coffee table in your living room covered with a cheeseboard and a platter of your mom’s homemade sourdough. Barely in frame is your gas fireplace, slightly obfuscated by red and green stockings, a basket of children’s books. You have a slice of sourdough in your hand, covered with a slice of brie. Your mom is next to you, talking about how the sourdough recipe was passed down from her father. You’re nodding, knowing how this story goes, because you’ve heard it so many times before. 

XXX. Nudum Pactum, n.

The sky. Sparse clouds float over the park. I took this with my phone while laying on the grass next to you on the first day of spring break. I had just gotten the question that was stuck in my throat out. A question that I lacked vocabulary for— labels, exclusivity— about wanting to be yours. You said yes. There was a breeze then, a new breath. I took a picture of the sky then, the sky where we started. 

XXXI. Ambuscado, n.

I hid this scrapbook in the bottom drawer of my nightstand, the only place I could think of that you would never look. I spent several late nights going back through my phone history to find the best pictures, print, trim, and arrange them. Had to ask your mom for some that I knew she took, carefully placing them into my backpack between my binder and my calculus textbook, when you weren’t around. I wanted to surprise you. I’ve never put more effort into something than I did into this. For you. Because you deserve it.

Doing the Work

Each section is based on the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the day from July, 2020.

I. Delectus, n.

With Will going to Basic Training this fall,
his old Camry would just sit in the garage
for who knows how long, especially
if he gets stationed somewhere far away.
So, naturally, I asked him
if I could have the car.

“You can’t even drive yet.”
He shakes his head,
looks back at his phone.

“But I’ll be able to soon. You know
my birthday is at the beginning of September.
I can take the test then.”

He scratches his head.
“Why can’t you just use Mom’s car?
That’s what you practice on.”

“I won’t be able to drive that car
to school, Will.
I’d need it to get a job, too.
Come on.”
I feel my back tighten. 

He sighs, rolls his eye.
“Fine, Nate. But—“

I freeze mid-fist pump.

“You have to earn it.”

“What?”

“Being goal-oriented,
showing determination, grit
are values I wish I had learned
when I was your age.
What kind of big brother would I be
if I didn’t try to help you grow, y’know?”

“You’re serious? I need to pay for it?
How much?”

He types and scrolls on his phone.
“Kelley Blue Book says
the car is worth $2000.”
He raises his eyebrows,
sees my eyes widen.
“I’ll give you the family discount of $1000.
You have two months of summer left.
It’s possible.”

I exhale through my nose.
“Fine. If you say so.”

“I do. Deal?”
He sticks his hand out to shake on it.

I grab his hand.
“Deal.”

II. Coxcombery, n.

Of course he would get on some sort of
high-horse nonsense
in this whole thing.
Always has to have the moral high ground.

I lie in bed, stare at the ceiling, brainstorm.
What can I do to get some cash?
Yard work is obvious.
People probably don’t want
a stranger cleaning their house.
I can walk dogs?
Keep it vague.

I get a piece of paper out of Mom’s printer,
a sharpie and a roll of tape from a drawer in the kitchen,
make an ad for help with “odd jobs”
with my name and number on it,
tape it to the side of the neighborhood mailbox.

III. Jibbons, n.

Mrs. Plover
is a retired nurse who
lives in the house at the end of the street.
She’s the first person to call me,
says her vegetable garden needs tending.

“Be careful with those,” she calls
from her lawn chair, maskless,
as I turn some dirt.
“I started those as seeds in an Aerogarden
my daughter got me for Christmas.”

“The stalky things?” I ask.

“Yes.
They’re spring onions,” she answers,
looks at the clouds in the sky.
“I transplanted them a few months ago,
just after quarantine started.
Hurt my knee somethin’ fierce that day.
Haven’t been able to work
that low to the ground since.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, ma’am.
Would you like anything else done
when I’m finished with your garden?”
I spread compost between rows of stalks,
holding my breath best I can.

“Not today, Nathaniel.
Maybe something will come up soon.”

“Just let me know. I can help with
whatever you need.”
Whatever can get me paid.

Mrs. Plover nods, smiles, closes her eyes,
takes a deep breath of the summer air.
“That’s nice of you,” she says
in a tired voice
as she relaxes in her chair
and falls asleep.

IV. Ambigue, n.

Just gonna be honest:
I think Mrs. Plover gives me work
so she has someone to talk to.

The day after I work in her garden,
she asks me to take out
the weeds in her front yard.

She sits in a camping chair
by her front door as I work,
talking about her favorite books.

she gets quiet as the Danielson’s
park their Explorer in their driveway.
They wave as they walk inside.

She waves back, watches them
enter their house down the street
on the other side of the mailboxes.

“Never felt very sure about
those Danielsons,” she says.
“I’ve dealt with people like them before.”

I put a handful of dandelions in the bag,
wipe my forehead with the hem of my shirt.
“What do you mean?” I ask.

“At the hospital,” she says. “People like them
would always exaggerate their pain
for prescription drugs.”

Don’t know how to respond to that.
“That certainly sounds frustrating,”
I say, bending down to pull up more weeds.

V. Brigue, n.

My relationship with Jessica
has been rough
during quarantine.
She wants to FaceTime every day,
which I’ve been happy to do,
but now we can’t do that as often
since I started doing work
around the neighborhood.

Last night was bad.
I was exhausted
after weeding Mrs. Plover’s yard,
and I started falling asleep
on the call
while Jessica told me about her day.

She was upset, said
it’s apparent
she’s not important
to me.

I told her
I need the money, but
that wasn’t a good reason
to her.

VI. Alembic, n.

The summer sun,
alone in a cloudless sky,
relentless
as I mow yards of several houses.

On my break, I look at my phone to
check for more jobs,
check how much I’ve made,
calculate how much I need to make
per day
to stay on track.

I drink some water,
wipe sweat from my brow,
wring sweat from my mask, then
push my lawnmower to the next house.

VII. Ambarvalia, n.

Sacrifice.
How does she not get it?
I know it’s hard now, but
the benefits of having access to a car
infinitely outweigh
the current burden.

VIII. Thingism, n.

After a week of working around the neighborhood,
Mrs. Plover asks me to mow her yard.

She offers me a glass of water when I’m done,
cold and damp with condensation.

She takes a sip of her glass, shakes her head.
“So materialistic,” she sneers. “Vain.”

I follow her gaze to the Danielson’s driveway,
see Mrs. Danielson behind their Explorer

load her arms with canvas bags full of groceries
out of the trunk to avoid a second trip.

I take a long drink of water.
“Mrs. Danielson?” I ask.

“The whole family,” she says.
“Spending their money on such frivolous extravagance.”

I can see the Kroger-brand chip bag
peaking out of one of her bags.

“Are you sure?” I pause.
“Seems like normal groceries to me.”

“It’s not just the groceries, Nathaniel.
It’s everything. They always flaunt their wealth.”

I look at their house and yard—
identical to every other one on the street.

“Huh,” I shrug, finish my water,
thank her, get my money, leave.

IX. Ayuh, adv.

I was a bit surprised
when Mr. Danielson called me
to mow their backyard.

I don’t know why.

I guess I assumed that
they wouldn’t need the help
based on how much money they have.

That’s what Mrs. Plover said.

Even if
it’s just a pity thing,
it’s still money.

I accept the job.

X. Nomina Sacra, n.

When you go to a rich person’s backyard,
you expect to see fancy stuff—
a pool or a tennis court or whatever.

But,
the Danielson’s yard
looks just like ours.

A clothesline stretched to the back fence,
lawn chairs on their small patio by
an upturned cornhole board.

Above it, next to the sliding glass door
a placard that says
“OKE” with a line over it.

Mr. Danielson
catches me staring
as he winds up the garden hose.

“You alright?” He asks,
setting the hose behind their barbecue.
He wipes his hands on his jeans.

“Uh, yes, sir,” I stammer. “Sorry.”
I shake my head.
“Just admiring your yard. It’s nice.”

“Thank you, Nathan.”
He tilts his head at the placard.
“You have no idea what that says, right?”

I blink, shake my head.
“No sir.
I was curious.”

He chuckles. “No one ever does.
It’s an abbreviation for ‘Mother of God’
in Greek. Reminds us to be thankful.”

“Oh cool.” I nod, look at it again,
then around the yard. “I didn’t realize
how similar all of our yards are.”

“Really?” He laughs.
“They don’t make special houses
for Black people.”

XI. Dreich, adj.

When I was young,
my mom scolded me
when I asked about race
at all.

“That’s rude,” she’d say, 
then apologize to
whoever I asked about,
whoever was around.

“You judge a person
by the content of their character,
not the color of their skin,” she’d say;
something that was echoed by
every teacher I had in elementary school
in the month of January.

XII. Bricole, n.

I stammer through an apology
as an automatic response.
“Oh, sir, I’m so sorry.
I didn’t mean to imply—
I was just—
I’m sorry, sir.”

Mr. Danielson laughs so hard,
he bend over, hands on knees.
After a deep breath, he says,
“Don’t sweat it , Nathan.
You’re not the first white boy
to assume racist stereotypes about us.”
He wipes a tear from his eye.
“I just like messing with you guys.”

“No, sir, please.”
I shake my head,
wave my hands like windshield wipers.
“It wasn’t
about race at all,
I swear.”

“Oh, it wasn’t?” He asks skeptically.

“Not at all, sir. I just thought—“
It turns out, this is
even more awkward
to say out loud.
“I thought your family was wealthy, sir.”

Shames washes over me.
First, talking about race.
Then, talking about money.
My parents would disown me.

Mr. Danielson
furrows his brow, leans back.
“What
would have made you think that?”

XIII. Pacation, n.

I did my best
to end the conversation
as quickly as possible.

“I’m not sure, sir,” I told him,
seeing Mrs. Plover’s scowl in my head.

“Well, it’s alright, I guess,”
Mr. Danielson said, confused.
“Don’t worry about it,”
he added, his hand on my shoulder.
“You’re young
and have plenty still to learn.
Just be conscious. 
You’re a good person; I can tell.”

I swallowed guilt
as he pointed around the yard
to warn me about molehills,
soft patches that might need an extra push
as if nothing had happened.

XIV. Bastille, n.

I finish mowing the yard, hurry home.

Once in my room,
I put Mr. Danielson’s ten dollars
in an old Folgers tin,
update the running total
on a sticky note under the lid—
only a third of the way there.

I take my phone out of my pocket,
see multiple messages from Jessica,
lay it face down on across my bed.

I lie down and stare at the ceiling.
How had I never realized
the Danielsons were
the only Black family in our neighborhood?
Why did Mrs. Plover
say those things about them?

How much do I not know?

XV. Travertine, n.

I do only thing I can think to do:
Talk to my mom to figure things out.

“Nathan, it’s inappropriate
to talk about such matters,”
she responds immediately.

As I expected.
So, I try my brother.

He shrugs.
“I don’t know, Nate.
Mrs. Plover was a nurse for forever.
I think she’d know
what she’s talking about.”

Something still feels wrong.
I talk to Jessica.

“I don’t see why you have to
make it all about race.”
She shakes her head.
“It could be anything,
like their jobs or whatever.
Or maybe they’re from Tacoma.”

XVI. Staycation, n.

My turn to do the dishes
after dinner.
My phone face-up by mom’s coffeemaker
next to the sink.

A notification for a voicemail from
Mrs. Plover
stares at me—
an angry cat’s eye, blood red.

I wet the sponge, squirt soap
onto the baking sheet.
I scrub the sheet in small circles
slowly growing bigger.

When she called,
I dropped my phone on my comforter,
let the ringtone echo
until it ended on its own.

I’ll say I was busy.
I’ll say I needed a break.
I’ll say my mom needed my help.
I’ll say—

XVII. Simplicitatrian, n.

I turn off the faucet,
drain the sponge in my hand.

I place it in the holder,
and a gleam travels across the room

from my dad’s dog tags
hanging on the key rack by the front door.

I stand frozen at the sink.
He would be so ashamed.

He was direct, cut through
pleasantries when he needed to

address something or someone.
I need to be more like that.

XVIII. Bombogenesis, n.

Mrs. Plover asks me
to sweep out her garage,
clear her driveway, admitting
to looking for chores to “help
such an industrious boy like yourself.”

Before going to her house,
I rehearse a bunch of “call ins”
that I found online to be more polite,
just in case.

I collect dead leaves and broken twigs
in a dustpan behind her Volvo
when she finally makes a comment
about the Danielsons.

“Those Danielsons
always play their music so loud.”
She shakes her head,
places a palm over one of her ears.

I empty the dustpan into her garbage bin,
look down the road.
The Danielson kids were
drawing with chalk in their driveway.
A rumbling bass vibrated
the frame of a car further down the road.
Familiar—
a Camry. Will’s Camry.

“That’s not the Danielsons, ma’am.
It’s my brother Will’s car;
he must be vacuuming it out
and turned it up.”

“Hmm.” She squinted to
see the source of noise.
“You might be right, but
that family
does have a habit of being way too loud.
So inconsiderate.”

I gulp.
“Mrs. Plover, I don’t mean to be rude, but
I’ve never noticed the Danielsons
making any sort of noise.”

“You haven’t??” She asks, aghast.

“No, ma’am.
It usually my brother Will, I notice,
playing his music so loud.
Just because it’s hip hop
doesn’t mean
it’s the Black family playing it.”

She leans back in her chair,
clasps her hands in her lap.
“I hadn’t thought of that,” she says slowly.
“Thank you for that insight, Nathaniel.”

XIX. Abrodietical, n. and adj.

For the next week,
Mrs. Plover doesn’t call.

For the next week,
fewer people called
in general.

Maybe
people are vacationing
or on road trips.
Hopefully.

XX. Don’t-carishness, n.

Most people stopped calling.
I see them
around the neighborhood
when they said
they’d be out of town.

So what?
It’s nothing.
I can still do it.
There’s definitely something
I can do.

XXI. Ryotei, n.

Jessica tells me about
the restaurant she and her parents went to.
Some place with a French name
I don’t know the letters for,
finally accepting reservations
after reopening
from the coronavirus closure.

My eyes dart between
her FaceTime window
and
my half-empty Folger’s tin.

She talks about
eating on their patio
under a forest green umbrella,
the sun setting over the sound
as her parents clink crystal glasses.

I chew
the inside of my lip.

XXII. Taffetine, n.

The only people who call anymore
are the Danielsons.

Mrs. Danielson asks for help
putting laundry on the line
in their backyard.

“The factory is hell on my shoulders
some times,” she says,
placing a bin on the grass.
“With all the orders Amazon gets lately,
it’s been real bad.”
She rubs her left shoulder
with her right hand,
her elbow like a bird’s beak.

“Of course, ma’am,” I say,
picking up a shirt.
“Do you want them spaced a certain way?
Or, like, hung some way?”

She flicks her wrist at me.
“Psh! As long as they’re all up,
doesn’t matter.”
She winces, holds her shoulder.
“After a few hours,
you can come back and pick ‘em up.
I’ll have the girls fold ‘em;
they need to earn their keep.”
She smirks.

“No problem.”

Stiff clothespins over the taught line,
high over the yard.
I have to stand on the tips of my toes
to hang a pair of jeans.

I pick up a scarf,
a deep blue,
no end, a complete circle,
so soft in my hands.

Felt like holding 
a target and 
a halo and 
the ocean and
a band that holds us all together

all at once.

XXIII. Coulrophobia, n.

Since I started working
for the Danielsons,
it’s felt like
a floodlight flipped on—
I can see so much more than before.

Comments
from my mom,
from my brother,
from Jessica and her parents,
from my friends on Instagram
echo
Mrs. Plover.

I always hesitate,
aware that my lack of work
is directly related to
how I responded to her,
aware that people who do respond
are insulted, ridiculed,
drowned in torrents of
trite clown emojis and memes.

So, my thumbs
hover over an open keyboard
as I look out my window,
down the street,
to see Erica, the youngest Danielson,
riding her trike around the mailboxes
across the street from her house,
up and down the sloped curb
in constant circles.

XXIV. Fakement, n.

Maybe
I need to just act
like a garbage white person
to get the work.

Michael Jordan once said,
“Republicans buy sneakers too,”
so it shouldn’t be a stretch to say
racists need mowed lawns too.

Can I really
throw the Danielsons under the bus
for my own gain?

Maybe
I fake it to get the work, get the cash,
then call them out
after they say something awful.

XXV. Sprigger, n.

“... Thank you for the opportunity.
Have a good day. Also,
Black lives matter.”

“... It’s no problem; I enjoy the work. Oh and,
Black people have every right to protest
without retaliation from the government.
America was founded through protest.”

“... Of course. I’m happy to help.
But, you must realize what you said earlier
about, uh, ‘they bring gangs’
is a racist stereotype, right?”

“... No, thank you. But,
your privilege
as a white person
gives you opportunities
that people of color
do not have.
It’s not as simple as
‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.’”

XXVI. Myriad, n. and adj.

“What the hell are you doing?”
My mom’s question punctuated
by her dropping a bag from Taco Bell
on the kitchen table.

“I’ve been getting weird stares while
driving through the neighborhood lately,
and they keep whispering—
as if I can’t tell
what they’re doing when
they put their hands over their mouths.

“Then, then, as I get out my car tonight,
Mrs. Meredith has to call me over
to tell me that my son—
my well-mannered, kind son—
has been terrorizing the neighborhood,
calling everyone racist.

“What the hell were you thinking?
I raised you better than that.
You know
not to talk to people about that stuff.
I’ve told you so, so many times.”

She pauses, looks over at the key rack.
“... your father... 

“I am so disappointed in you.”

XXVII. Bricktop, n.

I stammer,
“I was just trying to do the right thing.”

I am small,
a child hiding in their bedroom closet.

“I was doing
what Dad would have wanted—“

“You don’t know what he would have wanted!”
She closes here eyes, deep breath in.
She wipes her black curls from her face
as she exhales.

“I know
he was bullied for his hair color
most of his childhood.
I know
he spoke his mind,
stood up when he saw others getting hurt.
I know
he joined the army
to defend our freedom.
I know
he died
fighting for our country and our rights.

“Don’t tell me
I don’t know
what my father would have done.”

XXVIII. Metempsychosis, n.

She places her hands on her hips,
shakes her head.
“You’re just like your dad.”

She nods slowly,
walks over to me,
rubs my cheek with her thumb.
“You remind me of him so much.”

She inhaled shakily,
walks back toward the front door.

“Now eat your quesadilla.”

XXIX. Social Climber, n.

“What are you even doing?”
Jessica’s face was serious,
eyes intense.
“Madison said
you were making
everyone in your neighborhood
uncomfortable.”

She said it with hesitance,
like she was afraid to talk to me at all.

“I only made racists uncomfortable by
pointing out their own biases
against Black people.
They should be uncomfortable.”

“You can’t just go around
making people uncomfortable!
You’re just going to
drive people away from you!”
She shakes her head,
face in the palm of her hand.
“That whole
Black Lives Matter thing
was trending months ago.
It’s over, Nate;
you’re too late.”

“Who am I driving away?
People who don’t want to see
how they’re mistreating others?
People who want to allow
people of color to stay oppressed?
Good riddance.”
I take a breath to stop myself from yelling.
“Human rights are not a trend.
They’re not something that goes away
after Kanye says something outrageous.
People need help,
and I want to help them.
Don’t you?”

She sighs.
“There isn’t anything I can do, Nate.
I posted the black square,
which did bring
a lot of awareness to the cause.
I did my part.”

I stare.
“Have you done anything
to confront your own privilege
as a white woman
since then?
Especially
as a wealthy person?”

She back away from the screen slightly.
“What are you even talking about?”

“You have a huge platform,
vast amounts of money—
don’t deny it.
Your family just went to an
expensive restaurant a few weeks ago.
You have thousands
of followers on Instagram.
Your life is easier because of your race.
That’s just how it has been.”

“My life hasn’t been easy!”

“Comparatively, it has been!”
I yelled. I tried not to, but I did.

“Is this really
how you’re going to be now?”

“Are you really
going to act ignorant
of your power, influence, and privilege?”

She ends the call.

XXX. Nuée Ardente, n.

“Dude, what’s going on?”
Will enters my room, disheveled,
after I put my phone down.
“I just got home, and
Mom is out there yelling at
Mrs. Meredith.
You know why?”

I sigh, exhausted
by the two previous conversations,
lamenting another negative response.
“Me.”
I sit up on my bed.

“What? Why you?”

I close my eyes,
attempt to center.
“I was doing some jobs
around the neighborhood
to raise money for the car,
right?”

“Right.”

“Well, I became aware of the racism
in our neighborhood after doing some jobs
for Mrs. Plover.”

“The old lady on the corner?”

“Yeah.
She said a bunch of rude stuff
about the Danielsons
down the road.
I confronted her about it,
then she told everyone else
I was a problem.”

“Oh.
That’s why Mom’s yelling at Mrs. Meredith?
She believed Mrs. Plover?”

“... Not exactly.
After a while,
I called around for work
at the places I had heard racist things,
so that I could call them out
on their racism
after they paid me.”

“What.”

“I know.
I stand by it—
it had to be done.
Mrs. Meredith yelled at Mom
when she got home tonight, because
I told her
it’s racist to believe 
the Danielsons will
‘prowl the neighborhood’ to
‘loot all of our cars.’”

“Oh what? No way. She said that?”

“To my face, Will.
I had to call her out on it.
Those beliefs are dangerous.”
I paused, a deep breath.
“Are you angry at me too?
Mom and Jessica were.”
I look down at my feet.

XXXI. Similitude, n.

I can’t tell if it takes him
five seconds or five minutes
to say,
“Naw, man.”
He sits next to me on my bed,
punches my shoulder.
“You stood up for what you believe,
fought against injustice—
it’s what Dad would have done.”

“That’s what I told Mom!”

We laugh.
I didn’t think
I would be capable of that tonight.

When he calms down, Will asks,
“So you tanked you’re business then?”

“Completely.”

“How close were you?”

“Several hundred short.”

He whistles, nodding his head slowly.
“You can have it for whatever you got.
Antiracist discount.”

I can’t breathe, excitement bursts
from my chest.
But.

“No.”

“What?”

“It wouldn’t be right.
I have to earn it,
like you said.
Just being handed a thing
doesn’t happen. You have to do the work.
Working for something is important.
I want to earn the car.”

Will lies on his back, looks at the ceiling.
He thinks for a while.
“Okay. You’re right. So,
I leave in two days.
Maybe
you can give the money to Mom
when you get what you need, and
she can deposit it for me;
I’ll leave her the keys.
That way you can get it
when you earn it.”
He holds his hand up toward me.

I grab his hand
for the most awkwardly angled handshake
of my life.
“Deal.”

Isolated Thunderstorms

Each section is based on the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the day from June, 2020.

I. Astrolabe, n.

“Your first semester
will occur during your flight,”
the dean explains.
His grey hair slicked back,
suit neatly pressed.
“The course will be broken down
into modules that you access
on your ship’s console.”

He walks in front of a whiteboard
covered in diagrams of
The orbits of Earth and Mars.
“The goal is for you to get adjusted to
the rigor of our program and
used to life within the confinements of
space travel.”

He holds up his hand, fingers splayed,
points with his ring finger
at the earth on the whiteboard.
“Following the Hohmann transfer,
your trip should take about six months.”
He drags his finger along a dotted line
that connects the Earth’s circle to Mars’s.
“That should be plenty of time
to complete your studies and
be ready to join our program.
Any questions, Emilia?”

I finish my doodle
of a western meadowlark
in the margin of my notes.
“No, sir.”

II. Histrion, n.

Hey Em,

I don’t know how long it’ll take for this message to get to you, let alone when the university will send out the batch of transmissions, but I just wanted to talk to you.

It’s possible your dean explained some of the logistics of this to me before you left, but his uniform was so loud, I couldn’t really hear half of what he said. I just nodded the way dad told us to when we talk to the cops. I realize that probably wasn’t the best move now.

When we came to your launch this morning, I was a mess. You may not have noticed, since I tried to be strong for you. You know, the whole stoic-man thing— you were the one who explained that to me in the first place, so I don’t really need to explain it, I guess.

We stood at the designated viewing area, and as the countdown echoed from the speakers, I felt the dam start to tear down. You were a small dash ascending into the blue sky, and I was so scared— my little sister was flying to Mars, and there was nothing I could do to protect her anymore.

I stood there long after your dash became a period became nothing. If it weren’t for Malik taking my hand, I’d probably still be out there staring at the space where you were.

I’m so proud of you, and I miss you so much.

Jon

III. Sunshiner, n.

Getting used to 
artificial days and nights
takes a while.

The tint of the windows,
intensity of internal lights change
with a clock set to DC’s time zone.

The cabin spins
slowly— enough
to simulate gravity.

I watch a glimpse of sun
not caught by the solar panels outside
scroll along the floor at midnight.

IV. Phlizz, n.

Hey Em,

Still don’t know when the university is sending these messages to you, but I hope you’re doing well. It’s been about a week since I sent my last message, just to give you an idea of my timeline. Do timelines matter when you’re alone in space?

Anyway, I have some big news: Tre’von is starting kindergarten next week! We went back-to-school shopping to get a dope first day shirt, and— is it still back-to-school shopping when he hasn’t done school before? I guess Head Start counts. Doesn’t matter, still excited. We got him a shirt with a rocket ship on it; that’s the point of the story.

He chose it from the rack, practically ran right up to it, and I said, “Oh you wanna go into space too?” And he looked at me all confused, so I added, “like Auntie Em?” He nodded slowly in that way you do when you don’t really understand, but you want to try on the shirt with a bedazzled rocket ship so bad. Who can really blame him?

I wish you could be here to see his first day, Em.

We all miss you terribly,

Jon

V. Nipe, v.

Sometimes,
when I can’t focus on the console,
I make it read the chapter out loud to me
while I go through a yoga sequence.

I get up from Shavasana
to take a quiz on the reading.

It feels like my consciousness
is tethered to that screen,
those quizzes—
check marks on a to-complete list.

Portioned meals
dispensed on timers—
enough to sustain myself.

Arbitrary measurements of time
tell me when to eat and sleep, but

there is no time here.

Sustain.
Enough.
Repeat.

VI. Summum Jus, n.

Hey Em,

Hope you’re doing well.

Tre’von’s first day of kindergarten went brilliantly! He wore his rocket ship with so much pride. He was so excited, he woke me and Malik up by running into our room and singing the Sesame Street theme.

The rest of the week, however, was a bit weird. I don’t need to tell you how good Tre is at making friends— that kid can talk to anyone about anything. Well, he heard about and saw other kids’s moms for the first time in a while. So, naturally, at dinner, he asked us about who his mom is. Just like when he started day care.

We’ve treaded this water before, so we went over the talking points again, and even tried to fruitlessly explain surrogacy. He got quiet and made this face— it just broke my heart, Em. He had never made that face before, but it was aching with pain.

Malik says we should talk about it. I’m not sure how to even start. You’d be helpful about now.

Missing you,

Jon

VII. Imperturbable, adj.

Summer internship:
an apple orchard in Yakima,
experimental crops in mineral deposits,
spreadsheets and graphs.

They called me
a problem solver,
cool under pressure,
promising.

My mentor
wrote a glowing review,
recommended me for the program
trying to make Mars habitable.

VIII. Quank, v.

Hey Em,

There’s so much to tell you, but it’s all dammed up. There’s so much noise, it’s hard to find the signal, sort it into manageable parts.

I couldn’t sleep the other night, probably just the changing of the seasons. But, I got up to get a drink of water, and as I went down the stairs, I heard this sound. A guttural cry. It only let out a couple times, but I saw the origin: Tre’s door.

I inched up to it, slow and quiet. There was faint rustling of sheets, high-pitched breaths.

There are times when dad-instincts take over. No rulebook, no manual, no flowchart. You just do— like an aching autopilot.

I opened his door, peeked in, saw him laying in bed, one leg out from under his covers. In the faint glow of his nightlight, there were wet spots on his pillow. He looked at me.

“Hey Tre, you awake?” I whispered. He nodded. “I had a bad dream, could I sleep here for a bit?”

He sniffled, nodded, wormed over to make room on his bed.

I didn’t say anything else. There was nothing I could say. My son was hurting, and I would do whatever was needed to help him.

I hope you’re not hurting too.

Jon

IX. Guntz, n.

Sometimes,
when I look out of the window,
see the vast void of the galaxy,
stars whose names I can’t quite remember,

I feel the excitement
that’s waned since launch—
that feeling of endless possibility,
that vision of
skyscrapers standing tall
in a Martian sandstorm.

Then the cabin revolves,
and there is abyss,
bone fragments poke out
of red sand dunes.

X. Hench, adj.

Em,

I’m hoping that it’s just taking a long time for data to travel across the solar system, and that these messages are finding you well.

I’m going to give you some good news this week. Since Tre’von’s going to school now, I’ve decided to get back into acting. Now, believe me, working on the production team was great and had a way more manageable schedule, and I’m so thankful they were able to find an arrangement that kept me involved, but I’ll be honest: I’ve missed being on the stage, the makeup, the lights, the crowd.

Our theater held auditions for our upcoming production of Les Mis, and your big brother is going to be the first Black Jean Valjean in the Ave’s history! Really. In a century, I’m going to be the first one.

Just practicing with the soundtrack after getting the role tired me out, so I have to start exercising more consistently. Cardio is the worst. You don’t have to do cardio in space, right?

Wish you were here,

Jon

XI. Anent, prep. and av.

Episodes of effort
are followed by
sagas for lethargy.

My console dings,
notifications
build up.

But I can’t
get up
to read them.

XII. Summa Cum Laude, adv., n., and adj.

Em,

I can really feel the distance between us now, and knowing that it has to be normal, at least for some time, is difficult. Writing these messages makes me feel at least somewhat closer to you, however tenable.

So, some more good news. Tre’s class had a spelling bee this week. Not like, national-spelling-bee level, of course. Maybe spelling bee is a strong term for what it was. It was mostly naming the letters of the alphabet when shown, and reading or spelling short words.

His school made it an event instead of just a test in class. There was cheap catering, the PTA brought in some desserts, the kids got name tags that hung around their necks like the real thing. So cute. Kids weren’t eliminated, but earned points for correct answers on their first attempt, and the crowd cheers for everyone, obviously.

Tre’s face. His smile after he’d name his letters, read those words. He shined, Em.

It was the last round; he hadn’t missed a single question. They were naming letters shown on sheets of paper. It was Tre’s turn, and the teacher noted Tre’s accomplishment, and said he was going to get a challenge. He was so excited for the challenge. They held up the paper, and Tre squinted at it for a second, before saying, “That’s not a letter!” He thought for a second. “That’s a nine! MWAH HA HA HA!” He seriously did the Count’s laugh and everything. Malik and I were dying.

Tre was right, of course. He won the competition and got a certificate with his name on it. He was so happy, he couldn’t let go of it from the moment they handed it to him, and the audience erupted for him, to when he had to brush his teeth to go to bed.

I’m so proud of him. All of those hours of Sesame Street were worth it!

Jon

XIII. Ambiate, v.

There’s a future
where humans are not tethered to
one planet.
There is
so much universe to traverse,
so much to learn.

I can be
a step there.
My research
can build the foundation
that launches the human
race out of this star system.

XIV. Pandemain, n.

Emilia,

I’ve focused on good news the last couple weeks, because I needed to reframe myself. This last month has been really hard on all of us.

You know how Malik has been at his accounting firm for forever? Well, there was an opening for a management position in his department, and Malik, being a total Hamilton, applied for it, because he was more than capable of the work. He was passed over, because of course he was, and some white guy got the position. He says he’s fine with it, but I see the way he sighs after he finishes his coffee before going to work.

Tre has been lowkey struggling in school. Not academically— he’s a genius like you. He soaks up everything at school and regurgitates it to us at dinner. But, I still hear him cry in his room some nights. He still asks questions about his biomom maybe once a week, pausing after retelling one of his classmates’s stories about their moms.

And, his teacher is taking a race-blind approach to her curriculum, because we’re “all one big human race.” I was about to tell you at the beginning of his school year, because she said that in her welcome letter. I even typed it, but deleted it, thinking I was blowing it out of proportion. But it’s there. The books she selects for story time are about white people and by whites people. Malik told me to bring it up to her if it bothered me, but I don’t even know how to start that conversation.

Why is it that every decade or so white people think they’ve solved racism? They elect a black man president one decade, they get rid of century-old confederate statues the next. Every time, they pat themselves on the back and move on. They don’t seem to realize that there are still people in positions of power that will turn their strides of progress into steps into inches. It happens every. time. 

I hope you’re doing well. 

Jon

XV. Kvetch, v.

The console dings as more messages arrive.
I don’t remember how long I’ve been hurtling.
There’s probably some math I could do to figure it out,
but what’s the point?

There’s a red dot somewhere that I’m going to land on.
That’s what they tell me, anyway.
A recording of a voice tells me about acclimation techniques,
but can lungs really learn new tricks?

I don’t remember what my voice sounds like.
When I try to speak, nothing comes out.
The console dings again.
How long have I been laying here?

XVI. Barney’s Bull, n.

Emilia,

I am exhausted. Are you too?

Rehearsals have really picked up, and I feel like I’m on a perpetual treadmill. I wake up, get Tre ready for school, drop him off, then rehearsal goes all day. It’s more intensive than I anticipated. I get home in time for dinner, which Malik has to prepare most nights, and as soon as dishes are done, I crash on the couch. Malik has to wake me up so I can go to bed. Bless him.

Maybe I just need a new rhythm to land. Some kind of routine to take root, you know? I just feel like I’m tumbling haphazardly. Taking so much time away from the stage really made me rusty. But the thing is, I can see how to do all the things. I know how to do them. My body is just slow to get back up to speed.

I can feel the progress happening, but it’s a phantom. It’s there until I look for it, then it’s gone. Nowhere to be seen. Gotta just believe it’s there, I guess? I know you don’t do well with the whole “lack of observable evidence and data” thing, but you can imagine it, right?

Jon

XVII. Foot-Hot, adv.

At fake-sunrise,
instead of a ding, the console says
our voyage is halfway to our destination.

I’ve done barely any of the assigned modules.
I lean up, my back stiff.
When did I last stretch?

I sit in front of the console,
a mountain of messages populate the screen.
So many from Jon.

Save them for later.
I open the program and speed-read the modules,
guess the answers on some quizzes.

Whatever it takes to catch up.
In my periphery, I see
several meal trays pile up.

I wake up with my head on the keyboard.
Not sure when I am.
The console shows a progress bar at 55%.

XVIII. Mihi, n.

Dearest Emilia,

It would be an honor to have you in attendance at the premiere of the Ave’s production of Les Misérables next month on Friday, the 15th of November.

Sincerely yours,

Jon

P.S. I know you can’t make it, because space and stuff. I just wanted to make to gesture, because you mean so much to me, even when (especially when?) you’re on the other side of the solar system. The theatre said we all get to reserve a few seats opening night, and after Malik and Tre, we all decided you were the obvious choice. There will be a seat with your name on it.

XIX. Simit, n.

Everything feels determined,
stuck—
spirals within spirals.

A current takes you.
You
gasp, jump.

Your father
takes you to brunch downtown
one Sunday
during your grad program.

He comments
on how proud he is of your achievements,
before pausing
to remind you to make sure you're eating.

You look at the meal trays
stacked by your desk—
two days worth—

think of the cost being wasted
before
thinking of your own health.

XX. Puckerbrush, n.

Emilia,

One of the things that frustrates me about the way Dad raised me is the lack of emotional expression. You’ve told me about this, of course, but no amount of awareness on my part really gets me out of this straightjacket.

Malik was raised the same way, which shouldn’t be too surprising. I think all boys are all given these lessons. They’re in the air.

It doesn’t help that both of our schedules are so busy now, and its easy to become isolated, set up barriers across all lanes of traffic.

I brought this up to him years ago, when we were anticipating Tre’s birth. We agreed to try to raise our child, regardless of gender identity, so that they should feel comfortable expressing whatever they’re feeling. We didn’t want them stuck in the same restraints that we’re trying to escape.

But, it’s not the explicit teaching, which we have done. Its all the static that he picks up outside of that. He sees Malik and I suffer in silence. He sees us bottle it up.

Then he emulates it. It’s clear when I can hear him cry in his room, but then pull it together when I come in to check on him. He always says he’s okay.

How do you break a cycle for someone when you can’t break it yourself?

Jon

XXI. Satisdiction, n.

In undergrad,
I wanted to master everything.
I read the old textbooks,
watched all the supplemental videos I could find online.

I was competitive.

In this spiral cubicle,
I don't see the benefits of overexerting myself
for some letters
in a spreadsheet I will never read.

I am competent.

XXII. Bumptious, adj.

Elimia,

One of the nice things about theatre is the opportunity to escape the real world and inhabit a different person for a while. Sure, you may be a poor fugitive constantly on the run for a vindictive cop, but it’s a different rhythm from your actual life.

The person playing Javert exudes their confidence constantly. Even when we’re not in a scene. They just have this aura of superiority, like it should be an honor that they grace our theatre with their talent. Some holier-than-thou thing. Just like Javert.

It makes playing against them easier at least.

Two weeks until opening night! Wish you could be there!

Jon

XXIII. Sprunting, n.

I don't know what this feeling is.

Always seemed like a distraction
from work that needed to be done.

Saw others on campus
take inefficient routes to class,
check their phones while studying.

Never felt like I was missing anything
until I was so isolated.

To walk around a park or downtown.
To hear about their day, tell them about mine.
To have conversations with no set goal, no endpoint.

I don't know what feeling is.

XXIV. Delenda, n.

Emilia,

Balancing time between work and home is difficult. It must be even worse for you, having them be in the same place. I can at least try to leave work at the theatre when I go back home. I don’t know if you’re really able to do that as well. I hope you’re capable of balancing somehow, since it’s been months now.

Our director had an epiphany while on a hike in Olympic last weekend, and has decided to make some… tweaks… to Les Mis. I’m all for revivals changing the original text, the thing is a century old, but a week before opening night doesn’t seem like the best time for those changes to come through.

The revisions have meant that I have to spend more time at the theatre in order to learn the new lines, new blocking, new sequences. That means I’m spending less time at home. I can tell Malik is getting stretched pretty thin with taking up more of the everyday tasks. I do what I can when I can, but it’s not enough. I know it’s not enough. He says he can handle it. He always says he can handle it.

Tre’s been acting out more now, too. He’s never bee an unruly kid; you know that as well as I do. I’ve been working at the theatre his whole life, and it had never really been a problem before. But, when I started working longer days this week, he became more distant. He’s even started sharing less about his school day when I ask him about it.

Something is off-kilter here, and I need to figure out how to find equilibrium again.

Opening night is this Friday. Wish me luck.

Jon

XXV. Downcycling, n.

When I wake up, I drink a glass a water
that used to be my urine.

The first time was a challenge, I'll admit, but
it's a necessity, and logically must be accepted.

When you think about it, though,
everything is recycled.

The metal and wires in this ship were repurposed
from old electronics which were made

from the devices before them and
material excavated from the Earth's crust.

Everything comes from something,
then gets reused to adapt to the current state.

XXVI. Tinkerman, n.

Emilia,

Opening week has been exhausting. We’re running an eight-show-a-week schedule for the remainder of November, except for Thanksgiving of course. 

One of the factors that makes this particular run so tiresome is our director’s fickleness in settling on what they want. The last-minute epiphany wasn’t the only change they’ve implemented. They keep saying the dynamic isn’t quite right, and keep changing the ensemble night after night. While I’ve had to perform every night so far, much of the other cast was replaced by understudies at least once to see how that would, as they put it, “shake things up.” There is a weird electricity that runs through the cast when things change so suddenly. I don’t know if that’s a positive or not, but I’ll take it.

Malik and Tre sat by your empty seat near the stage. The last couple weeks have been rough, but it started to feel worth it when I saw their faces. Malik’s face so full of prideful tears. Tre’s eyes. This wasn’t his first musical, he’d been to a couple when I was working in production. This was the first time he saw me act though. His eyes were so full of awe. Have you ever seen someone so evidently out of their body? So palpably transported into a story? Eyes wide, mouth agape.

At the end of the first act, I peaked at them from the edge of the stage, and it took Tre a few seconds to land. He then excitedly looked to his left at your seat, then right to Malik. I couldn’t hear him, but I could see his mouth flying a mile a minute, his arms waving like he was trying to fly back out of his seat. Malik joined his excitement and flapped his arms too. I love them so much.

Wish you could have been there. I miss you.

Jon

XXVII. Manners-Painting, adj.

Realizations come
like gusts of wind in a storm.
They knock you down.

My eyes strain to see
the full progress bar.

A countdown clock widget,
recently added to the hud, says
seven days remain.

Fourteen notifications still
in the mail app, all from Jon.

Saving them for later,
meant later never came.
What kind of sister am I?

I read them
all.

XXVIII. Chop-Chop, n.

Emilia,

This will probably be the last message you get from me for a while. I know you’re busy with work for your program, and while I’ve benefitted from writing to you, it might just be putting some undue burden on you.

The show wrapped, as well as my acting career is seems. It turns out, the last-minute changes to the play were intended to artificially inflate the cost from investors so that the director could pocket the excess cash. The theatre was already struggling financially, so we thought the Thanksgiving weekend shows would cover it, but it didn’t do well enough to keep it all afloat, especially with so much money funneled out.

There isn’t another community theatre in the area, not one within driving distance at least, so I can’t really act anywhere else. I’ve had a few days to process it, and it’s not the worst thing, really. The schedule that we were subjected to at the Ave was a strain on all of us, especially Malik and Tre’von. I honestly wasn’t sure if I would do another show after seeing the effect it had on them in the first place.

Seeing Tre’s face light up that first night, the excitement emanating from him made me realize I want to bring that to other kids like him. So, I’ve decided to try become a drama teacher. Central has an online program to get the teaching credential in drama, and I think with my career history, there might be a way to expedite the program. I don’t really know if that’s possible, but it would certainly be nice if it is.

I feel good about the career change, don’t get me wrong. The idea of a stable, predictable schedule that should— SHOULD— allow me more time to spend with my family sounds relieving.

We’re going to be alright. I hope you are too.

Jon

XXIX. Simi-Dimi, n.

Dear Jon,

I am so sorry I never responded to any of your messages. You shared so much with me, and I didn’t say anything. I got stuck in my head for a while, and then I went all in on my work as I always do. But, there are no excuses that will suffice justification for my inaction.

I can’t believe you kept writing me every week for so long even though I ghosted you. I kept meaning to read to your messages, I really did, I just— You are an amazing brother, and I appreciate you so very much. You are never a burden to me.

Time gets really funky in space. Like, they attempt to mitigate it with some artificial lighting that brightens and dims with the ship’s perception of time, but knowing that it’s artificial, that time is a measurement that we created to make sense of a chaotic universe, just starts a whole different spiral about the line of demarcation between what is socially constructed and what exists naturally. Humans create so many arbitrary categories that they take to be fact— like race and gender.

Just like on Earth, you can still feel the implicit biases while isolated in a box flying through the solar system. So much of the materials I had to read for this program were just like what you said Tre (so proud of him by the way!) had to read at school— by white people, for white people (men, in this case). They’re also old, because history, and they’re full of the usual sexist tropes, the subtle erasure of women from the development and audience of scientific research, and it’s apparent that they still have not tested their devices on women or non-white people in the design process. The sensors they use for the automatic taps still don’t sense my skin that well. The console is supposed to have a face ID system for easy log in, but the camera doesn’t detect my face well either. Sorry for that tangent. It’s been a long six months.

I can’t believe you got the lead role in Les Mis! That’s so incredible! I wish I could have been there! Mom would be so proud of you! I remember how she made us go to all of your school plays. She’d always have some sort of bouquet with her, and as soon as you came out to bow, she’d throw it at you, even when you were just in the ensemble. And now you’re going to be a teacher?! I’m so proud you!

I’m so glad Tre seems to be growing into a proper genius. He’s going to ask a lot of questions, because all geniuses do. I’m sure it can be frustrating to have to have what seems like the same conversations over and over (I felt that way with my college-aged students a LOT), but if the questions are being asked, then there’s still some space that he needs to fill. You have been so patient and understanding, and that’s all you need to be right now. As long as you and Malik are there for him, and he knows you’re there and will still be there in the future, I think everything will work out. 

Again, I am so sorry for not responding, especially since your last message was almost three months ago. You must have worried that I died or something. I’m not dead. And I appreciate you putting so much time into writing to me, it made the end of this flight so much better. I wish I had read and responded to them throughout the trip. It probably would have helped me keep it together.

I like you, I love you, and I miss you.

Em

XXX. Lifemanship, n.

Hey Em!

It’s so good to know you’re not dead!

You don’t need to apologize. Really. I know your program is really intense— that was one of the few things that registered when your dean told me about what to expect after you launched. I knew that I needed something to tether me to you, and I thought you might need that connection too, even if you weren’t able to respond at all. Again, I have no idea how any of this space communication stuff works.

I was able to get into Central’s teaching program for winter quarter, and while they didn’t let my experience exempt me from any classes or credits (fair), my experience allows me to work through the courses a bit quicker. They’re all online classes, some proctored tests, some essays. The schedule is flexible, so I’m able to work on assignments when I have time, which tends to be during the day when Malik is at work and Tre is at school. This schedule is way more manageable than the theatre.

You are so right about what Tre needs from us. Since I’ve been home more, he hasn’t been as distant. He still asks questions a lot, because genius, but he definitely seems to become calmer the more we talk about surrogacy and his biomom. It’s still difficult, obviously, but it’s hard work that needs to be done, not dismissed.

Talking through difficult conversations with Tre inspired Malik to have those kinds of conversations at work too. He still has his job, which is good, and they’ve started a task force to look into analyzing the biases in the hiring and promotion systems within the company. It’ll take months for anything to happen on that front, if we’re lucky.

I’m glad you were able to get through your work and survive it. According to my Earth calendar, you’re supposed to be landing soon. You’re going to do tremendous work on Mars. You are an inspiration, truly. I am so proud of how much you’ve accomplished.

I like you, I love you, and I miss you.

Jon