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.

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

Cottonwood Seeds en Route: V. Nadine Sauer

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

This is the fifth and final entry in Cottonwood Seeds en Route. It is a continuation of Part IV: Isabella Dudosa.

I. Dulciloquent, adj.

It’s not only
because old books are cheaper—
though that certainly helps.

The language
flows like rivers with
centuries-old glacial water—
crisp, refreshing.

The pages age,
change shape and tone
like a person’s face and voice.

They’re
the only ancestors I have—
roots
for the rootless.


II. Arte Povera, n.

I know
it doesn’t seem like much, Elinor,
but our home has all we need.

I realize
you may find the stacks of books annoying,
but I haven’t found a good bookshelf at Goodwill
yet.
So, instead
our apartment has some free-range novels—
no oppressive, corporate cages here.
You, as a wildflower,
can probably appreciate that.

I know
I could get something cheap at work,
but it’s all soulless squares—
an erasure of home and culture.
We’ll MacGyver something, Elinor.


III. Microfinance, n.

After my shift, I usually
drive home,
cuddle with Falstaff as I
eat dinner and
watch Dragon Ball Super.

Lately, every commercial break
is an ad from Target
thanking me for my service,
lauding themselves for
donating masks to hospitals.

They
say they
care about me.

Not enough to
increase hazard pay.
Not enough to
ensure safer working conditions.
Not enough to
provide guaranteed COVID-19 leave.
Not enough to
cut a CEO’s salary to
cover the loss of hours of their employees.


IV. Padawan, n.

You called my name
from the backyard to show me
the tomatoes you were growing.

You held this bulb in your hand
that was as black as your hair,
and I didn’t believe you.

You held it up to me,
told me to bite it.
“They’re delicious, honey. Try it.”

I squirmed as I held it,
imagined black ooze gushing
from phantom bite marks.

I closed my eyes.
My trembling hand raised it to my mouth,
and I bit it like a wolf on deer meat.

I smiled as
seeds and juice dripped down my chin.
Delicious— just as you said.


V. Sinistrorse, adj.

feels like no matter what i do
i always wind up back here.

the same patterns
recurring perpetually.

i still water
your tomatoes

when I think of you,
so they’ll be ripe if you come home.


VI. Mural, adj.

I wake up surrounded by
four walls
covered in specks of memories
lingering in the paint.

I drive to work enclosed in
four walls
made of glass
so I can see the world, but not touch it.

I work in a store with
four walls
full of food and clothes, enough to
nourish multiple impoverished villages.

I don’t know what to do when these
four walls
inch inward like a long exhale—
air seeping through a seam on a spaceship.


VII. Femina, n.

When I learned
my grade couldn’t go down over the closure,
I stopped turning in anything.

Most days, I have work—
had to pick up extra shifts
cleaning to keep my hours up.

Today, I have off; the sun’s out.
I watch the leaves on the birch
across the complex wave in the breeze.

Lying on the couch, draped
over the edge,
I can’t bring myself to move.


VIII. Simony, n.

I didn’t trust you
when your will said
you wanted to be
cremated.

It’s hard to separate
your mom
from
the body she inhabited.

We did it, though—
well, you know that,
since you’re sitting on the side table
by the window overlooking your tomatoes.

I hated that guy at the funeral home
who kept trying to upsell us on gaudy urns
covered in emerald crosses
fully aware we couldn’t afford them.

I also hated that pastor who did your service.
I’m sorry; he did a fine job.
He just kept going about praying and
donating to save all of our souls.


IX. Time-Ridden, adj.

“Hey Nadine! How are you and Elinor?”

“Oh, we’re great! Elinor’s started teething, so I gotta massage her dirt sometimes after I water her. How about you and Lupine?”

“We’re good here too. Lupe started dancing to They Might Be Giants yesterday, and she’s so good, I’m thinking about enrolling her in Auburn Dance Academy.”

“Yesss! She would out-dance all of them! I’d enroll Elinor too, but I don’t know if Cory would get us there.”

She pauses. “What do you mean?”

“Well, when I was leaving for work, they screamed like Goku going Super Saiyan when I turned the ignition—“

“They?”

“Cars don’t have genders; keep up. Anyway, after achieving their new form, I was able to drive to work. They had to power up again to get me home, but it took less time that time, so I think they’re getting stronger.”

“Hasn’t Cory been struggling for a while now?”

“Yeah, sure, but they’re on the up-and-up. Got ‘em a new battery just before the closure.”

“And it— they’re already struggling to start again?”

“It only happens sometimes. Cory’s doing fine.”

“Have you thought about maybe replacing Cory? It’s kinda unsafe to keep driving them.”

I pause. “I can’t get rid of Cory, Isabella. I’m not going to lose them.”

“Isn’t your safety important enough to warrant a consideration, at least?”

“I’m perfectly safe.”

“But someti—“

“It was hers! Okay?! I can’t.”


X. Monody, n.

They asked me to speak at your memorial,
but I couldn’t
find the words.

There are no words
for the gaping tear your death made,
the shrapnel haphazardly embedded
in my limbs.

When someone dies suddenly, people say
they wish they had known it was coming;
they’re wrong.
Knowing,
watching you wither,
hoping for another day
made the period at the end of your sentence
much worse.

Your medical bills were so much,
we had to sell the house,
leave the garden you spent years curating.
Before we moved into this apartment,
I repotted your black tomatoes,
so they could live on our porch.

I still
water your tomatoes,
drive your car,
read your books,
because
it makes me feel like you’re still here
or
you’ll soon come back
from wherever you’ve gone.


XI. Adespota, n.

Do you ever think about
who makes the wind blow?
Why they want to rattle
the dogwood’s branches so much?

Or, maybe:
who spends the hours
setting up endcaps
to show off brand-name labels
at just the right angle
when you walk through a store?

What about the people—
long shadows now—
who cleared the forest,
flattened the hills,
paved and painted the roads
you drive on
as you lament the hours you’ll spend
sanitizing the pharmacy?


XII. Begrudgery, n.

I know it’s bad, but

on Sunday, when Instagram was full of
people with their living moms,
captions saying
they looked forward to seeing them again
after quarantine,

I wanted to scream.


XIII. Awfulize, v.

it’s been two years, nadine. you keep dragging her around with you in that old car. you know the risks. don’t you remember that time it stalled in the middle of the intersection on meridian in front of fred meyer? you don’t want to end up in a bodybag.

you’ve stalled— life on pause. each day like the one before. drag yourself out of bed. drag your feet at work. are you even alive? is there a will that lingers in your heart? is there a pulse there? steps echoing down a long hallway?

or, have you stopped walking? standing in place staring at one picture in the gallery though hundreds await you. you can see the edges of their frames in your periphery.

move your foot. move your foot. why can’t you take step?


XIV. Peck’s Bad Boy, n. (and adj.)

“Ms. Sauer,
can I see you for a minute before
the end of your break?”

Charles
insists on referring to minor employees
in such formality
for reasons lost on me.
He butchers Suri’s last name every time.

I leave
the disinfectant and rag
on the table where I took my break
reading For Whom the Bell Tolls.
I place the book in my locker
on the way to Charles’s office.

His office is small,
loose papers scattered across his desk.
“Thank you for coming to see me, Ms. Sauer.
I greatly appreciate your work here.”

Sounds like one of those commercials.

“It’s really great
that you volunteered to help us
keep up with sanitizing the store.
Are you sure
you’re not overworking yourself?”

“Yeah. I’m sure.”
Not where I thought this was going.
“Why?”

“We’ve just gotten
some recent survey results saying
some employees have had
negative interactions with customers
and morale seemed down—“

“So you’re asking this to everyone?”

“Not exactly, no.
The results correspond
with times you were here,
departments you were assigned to.
We just need to make sure
customers are having a positive experience
from the moment they enter our store
to the moment they leave.”

“But
I’m just wiping down
the floors, shelves, and counters.
I’m not really interacting with anyone.”

“It’s a— vibe thing.
“Maybe you could try
smiling more.”

Ugh.

“I’m wearing a mask.
They can’t see whether I’m smiling or not.”

“It’s about
the vibe you give the customer—
your aura.
Does that make sense, Ms. Sauer?”

I sigh. “Yes, sir.
I’ll smize all day.”


XV. Quint, n.

There’s no way
I could have gotten this far
without my friends.
I know
I’m not great to be around when
I get lost in the fog.

So,
I bought five books after my shift
to thank them
(and show them I know modern books).

First, I grab
Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan
for Crys,
because I thought she’d appreciate
the splintered narrative structure and
the narration of gay ghosts.

Second, I buy
The Fire Never Goes Out by Noelle Stevenson
for Suri,
because it’s a graphic novel (which they love)
by the showrunner of She-Ra (which she loves)
about figuring out who she is.

Third, I put
The Martian by Andy Weir
in my basket
for Isabella, 
because it’s a story on her favorite planet which tackles its
science and psychology thoroughly.

Fourth, I get
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
for Violet,
because she finds metaphors everywhere and
she helped me appreciate poetry,
especially poems by Angelou.

Last, after hesitating at the end of the aisle,
The Divine Comedy by Dante
ends up in my basket
for me.
My mom had always said
she meant to read it,
the way everyone says
they mean to watch The Sopranos, but
Goodwill never had a legible version.

I bag them individually
(I hope
Isabelle, Crys, and the planet forgive me),
leave them on their porches
on my way home.


XVI. Simkin, n.

In the back of the pantry is a bottle,
half full,
older than me.
A faded label, faint swirly writing.
Its cork sneaking a glimpse of
the kitchen when the door opens.

My dad takes it out sometimes
to look at it—
never drink nor open—
late at night,
when he gets home from Applebee’s
covered in dishwasher stains.

Lately,
after my late sanitation shifts, I’ve seen
the white of Seth Meyer’s attic
reflect off the curve of the bottle
and the streams on his cheeks.


XVII. Bukateria, n.

Near the end,
days before
the doctors shrugged
and we lost the house,
the realization came
that things were worse than I thought.

I had walked out of the hospital
after spending the night in your room.
We spent that night
splitting the penne you liked
from Applebee’s. Dad brought it
for you after his shift,
as he did every night he worked.
As you fell asleep,
I read a chapter from Sense & Sensibility
to you, because it was your favorite.

But, when I left the hospital that morning,
I walked up to the coffee stand
on the edge of the parking lot
before getting a ride to school
from Crys’s mom.
The realization came
when Kelsey, the barista, said,
“Morning, Nads!”

I had been to this coffee stand
outside the hospital
so much, not only
was I on a first-name basis
with the barista,
I had earned a nickname.
You had been in the hospital so long,
it felt normal, routine—
no end in sight.


XVIII. Pickthank, n. and adj.

Calling it “hero pay”
is not enough to justify
poor working conditions.


XIX. Simplex Munditiis, adj. and n.

On my way to work, I drove
by TJ Maxx, its planter covered
with cottonwood seeds, scattered
like melting snow.

Some cottonwoods, when felled,
don’t make good nurse logs, lacking
the width and girth to last long—
fell too early, too soon, too young.

They try their best—
stretched like shadows at dusk,
spread thin to help whoever
is still sitting there longing for shade.


XX. Antelucan, adj.

it happens a lot—

i get home late,
my clothes covered in
patches of lemony disinfectant.
i eat some leftovers
of what dad brought home from work
that night or the one before
while watching an anime
i don’t need to think hard about.

i shower then read
before falling asleep at
some witching hour or other. 

then terror;
never the same, but never that different.

sometimes,
you’re swallowed by a void
pulsing from shadows
in your hospital room’s corners,
slowly capturing finer details until
everything becomes
two-dimensional, matte
like a cartoon—
outlines bolden until
all is black, all is void.

sometimes,
you and i are in cory
driving to the discount movie theater
in the mall when
we get t-boned in the parking lot,
shards of glass falling
like hard rain in a thunderstorm—
sounds like one too—
sticking out of your skin
like darts in the dartboards
movies use when they want to
establish conflict or character.

sometimes,
you’re in a pit of quicksand, waist deep,
and I’m standing on the edge
reaching on my tiptoes toward you,
and you keep saying “no, don’t. it’s okay,”
and I argue with you
as you slip deeper and deeper,
the thixotropic sand
climbing over your blouse, your shoulders,
devouring your hair, your neck.
your eyes wide, cracks in the dam evident,
before becoming dark, empty.

i startle awake at the end
as the night sky’s blue-black 
begins its transition to
orange peel.
i watch the line march across the sky
out my window
until my alarm tells me
it’s time to get up.


XXI. Angrez, n. and adj.

This morning,
Falstaff digs his claws into my thigh
when I ignore my alarm.

This afternoon,
rain pounds on Cory’s windshield
when I drive to work.

When KZOK plays “Blackbird,”
I see my mom swaying and humming
in her garden.

When I pull into a parking spot,
I count between inhales and exhales
in my hands.


XXII. Muscose, adj.

I latch onto you
to get as much as I can
before you’re completely gone.
Always have.

I worry in hindsight
that maybe I drained you of energy
you needed.
I’ve been told
that’s not true,
none of it is my fault.

You can never know
how immense the impact of both
your presence and your absence
can be.

I carry you now
like you carried me then.


XXIII. Oblique, adj., n., and adv.

“Hey, are you alright?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I say as I get in Crys’s car.

She squints. “Then why did you call me at midnight to ask for a ride home?”

“Well, Cory was tired from flirting with all the mall cars— you know how they are— so they kinda fell asleep, and they’re so cute when they’re sleeping, I just let them be.”

Crys rolls her fingers along the rim of her steering wheel. “Cory didn’t start again?”

“Yeah. I tried a couple times to get ‘em up, because sleeping at home is def safer than sleeping in a parking lot— true for both cars and humans— but they shut me out after the third time.”

“Shut you out?”

“The anti-theft system kicked in. It happens sometimes. It’s not a big deal.”

“Nadine, I think it is a big deal. Cory’s been falling apart for a while, and—“

“I just put in—“

“— a new battery in March that’s not solving the whole not-starting thing. Are you sure you shouldn’t look at getting a newer car?”

“I have to hear this from you too? Isabella already lectured me about this.”

“Is that why you called me? Because she would lecture you again?”

I open my mouth;
no words come out.

“It’s alright,” she sighs, places her hand on top of mine. “I know Cory is important to you.”

I look at Cory
sleeping in the spot beyond
Crys’s left headlight.

I shake my head. “It was her car, Crys.”

“I know,” she nods. “And it must be hard with her anniversary coming up, right?”

“Yeah.” I clear my throat. “It’s not like we can afford another car anyway.”

“You could always trade Cory in to pay for it.”

My cheeks burn. “Would you have traded your sister in when she was sick?”

The engine’s hum fills the silence.

“I know you’re hurting, but that was a truly awful thing to say.”

She shifts the car into drive.


XXIV. Plutodemocracy, n.

Puyallup changes
when you get a few blocks off Meridian,
especially at night when
strip malls become neighborhoods,
street lights become sparse.

I stare at trees consumed by shadows as
Crys drives, silent,
chewing the inside of her lip,
angry tears welling up in her eyes.

“I’m sorry, Crys. There’s so much going on, and it just kinda… I took it out on you. I’m sorry.”

Her eyes don’t leave the road.

“I know I upset you. You came to help me and I was a dick… I’m scared, Crys. I— The anniversary of her death is coming up, so I’m seeing her everywhere. Cory is dying, and I need them. They connect me to her and allow me to get to school and work, which we need to pay off all those stupid bills...

“And work is a constant reminder of how close death is. My job is literally going aisle to aisle disinfecting everything to eliminate the threat of a deadly virus, and my only protection is this old shirt I fashioned into a mask.”

My throat feels like my knuckles after washing my hands a tenth time in one day.

“I know you’re going through a lot. I don’t hate you. I’m still mad though. You can’t just walk away from the thing you said.”

“I know.”

There’s a long silence as she turns into my apartment complex. She parks in the middle of the lot outside my building.

“Your mom is not her stuff. Her soul is not in them, and she still lives in your memories.”

“I think that’s easier to believe when you have a lot of stuff and the money to get more stuff when you need it.”

She sighs, nods.

“I know she’s in my memories. Sometimes, it even feels like she’s my shadow. And I worry about losing even a millimeter of her.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry. I appreciate you and your friendship so much.”

“I appreciate you too, you dick.” She chuckles as she shoves my shoulder. “Now go to bed. It’s past your bedtime.”

“Thanks for the ride,” I say as I close the car door. I wave as I walk up the stairs to our door.


XXV. Hendecad, n.

We never ate at restaurants much, but
on the last day of the school year,
my mom
would take a half day at her office,
pick me up from school to
take me to the Original Pancake House
for lunch.

She died on a Saturday—
the 26th of May—
Memorial Day weekend.
9th grade,
my last year at Ferucci.

Neither my dad or I were capable
to being around other people
for months.
I don’t remember
the last month of that year, but
I do remember
the bus ride on the last day
to an empty apartment—
walls of unpacked cardboard boxes.

Last year,
it still didn’t feel right.
I drove myself home
in silence.

They may not be open this year—
doesn’t look like
the closure will open up by then—
but I should get something from there
to commemorate surviving
my junior year
while working full-time
amid a pandemic.
She would want me to.


XXVI. Simili-, comb. form

Me
crouching on the patio,
humming a Phoebe Bridgers song
as I water two pots of struggling tomatoes

is not the same as

you
walking by planters in the backyard
humming the Beatles
as you hose lush beds of vegetables

I wasn’t able to save.


XXVII. Alkahest, n.

I
wake up
Tuesday morning, the 26th,
to a bright sun outside my window—
no dreams nor dew drops—
and a text from Isabella about Skyping.

I
sit up in my bed,
start my laptop while
taking a drink of water from
an old pickle jar on my nightstand.

“Nadine! Lupe said her first word! Look!”
She holds up Lupe’s pot,
tiny purple highlights on her tips.
“Did you hear her?
She said, ‘shhh!’
I think she’s going to be a librarian!”

“Oh my god! Yesss!”
I reach over, pick up Elinor.
“Look at your sister! Aren’t you so proud?”
Elinor nods.

“That’s not all,” Isabella adds.
“Hold on.”
She looks down, starts typing.

I set Elinor down, look outside,
see white fluff float between the trees.

I hear several bloops from my computer,
turn to see
four faces smiling,
three hands waving.
All of their voices meld together
as they say hello.

“We didn’t want you to be alone today,”
Crys says. “And—“

“And,” Violet cuts in,
“I actually have internet now!
Did you know
there’s a deadly virus
spreading all over the world?
Google told me. You’re welcome.”

“Dude,” Suri chuckles,
“don’t even get me started.
I’ve had to explain it to
Yusef and Amina
like every day.”

“Ugh Same!” Isabella yells.
“It’s like Alejandro has amnesia,
I swear!”

It’s the first time
I’ve seen all of them
at the same time
since lunch
on the last day
before the closure.


XXVIII. Vehemence, n.

“Anyway,”
Crys emphasizes each syllable
to get our attention,
“we wanted to show you
we’re here for you.
We know how important
the anniversary of your mom dying
is, and we want to support you.”

They all nod.
So many half-sentences
stuck in my throat.

“Your mom was the best,” Isabella says.
“Remember my quinces?
She volunteered to bring salsa
for the snack table
using tomatoes from her garden, and
she placed both bowls
in the center of the table with
labels she made herself.

“And she made a point
to fake-revise the mild salsa label
to make it say ‘White Salsa!’
I was dying!”

My computer erupts with laughter.

Crys wipes a tear from her eye,
a hand on her heart.
“Oh my gosh,
my mom’s face when she saw it!”
She inhales, exhales through her nose,
goes wide-eyed, juts her chin out.

“That was the face!” Isabella yells,
laughing into her hands.

“She purposely sat us at our table
so she could see people’s reactions to it,”
I reminisce,
see her snickering into her napkin.
“She was so proud.”

“I wish I could have met her,” Violet says.
“She sounds like a great mom.”

“Me too,” Suri agrees.
“If only I could have gone to Ferucci too.”

I often forget they went to Glacier View.
It feels like
they’ve always been in my life.
“Yeah,” I say.
“She would have loved you nerds.”


XXIX. Sidereal, adj.

It’s a small action,
but it reverberates.

Before the call, I felt cold,
like I was laying in a puddle during a storm.
After the call, though,
which bounced from
stories about my mom to
stories about quarantine,
I felt less alone.
Warmth spread
from my chest to my limbs
then out.

That afternoon, the clouds opened up
to blue sky, birds started singing.
The sun
came out, stayed out
the rest of the week.


XXX. Dataveillance, n.

One of the line cooks from Applebee’s
follows my dad to Target
in his pickup
several nights after I left Cory there.

I meet them by Cory’s spot,
my dad having to drive me to work
the last couple days.
Charles
had commented on
a car being in the lot too long.
He plans on calling a tow company
tomorrow morning.

Luis opens his tailgate,
climbs into the cargo bed.
The truck’s creaking and staining
fills the empty lot.
He uncoils a long rope,
hops off the truck,
lays under it to
get a better vantage of the frame
as he ties one end of the rope around it.

“I really appreciate your help,” my dad says,
getting under Cory with 
the other end of rope.

“No problem,” Luis groans as
he gets back up to his feet.
He bends over, stretching his back.
“How old is the car?”

“Uh,” I stammer, “about 20 years old.”
I wring the strap of my messenger bag.

My dad tugs on the rope a couple times,
gets to his feet,
brushes off his jeans.
“It gets the job done
for the most part, though.”

They walk me through how
we get Cory home safely— how I will
put them in neutral,
get pulled by Luis’s truck, only
braking and turning when he does until
we’re in our complex.

Luis’s eyes bounce
between my dad and Cory.
“You need a car?”

“What?” My dad asks.

“We have a pickup we don’t use much
since Isaac went to college.
You could use it.”

“It’s alright,” my dad shakes his head.
"We don’t need your charity.”

Luis focuses on Cory.
“You can pay for it, then.”

My dad looks at me. I shrug. “How much?”

“How much you got?”

Luis insists on finding a compromise,
while my dad reluctantly drags his feet.
They work out an agreement
that doesn’t hurt my dad’s pride and
figure out a day for me to pick up the truck.


XXXI. Gas Giant, n.

A thunderclap.
Rain patter.
Wind howl.

Saturday morning, I drink coffee
sitting in the living room floor
next to my mom’s ashes and Elinor.

We watch the sky flash,
gutters spill over with rainwater,
young sprouts struggle in the wind.

I focus on a cottonwood seed
snagged on the rim
of one of the tomato pots.

They shiver,
inch like they’re afraid
to fly on their own.

I put down my mug,
place a hand on my mom’s urn,
boop Elinor’s nose.

The sliding glass door opens;
cool air roars in
as I step onto the porch.

My face is wet with rain as
I clip the seed’s fluff between two fingers,
whisper in their ear.

I let go, and
a gust of wind sweeps them up.
I watch them sail across the parking lot.

I lose them in the clouds,
but I’m not worried—
I know they’ll be okay.

Cottonwood Seeds en Route: IV. Isabella Dudosa

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

This is the fourth entry in Cottonwood Seeds en Route. It is a continuation of Part III: Suri Dihan.

I. Ombrogenous, n.

It is often stated as a fact that a person needs to feel some sort of pain in order to grow— we can see this literally when someone’s joints ache as their arms or legs grow longer. I am not sure how plausible this claim is though— too much stress can crush a sapling or snap a flower’s stem, for instance.

Humans are naturally social creatures— there are mountains of research and meta-research supporting this— so time during this Stay-at-Home order from Gov. Inslee is sure to cause a lot of stress on a lot of people.

That is why I decided to start skyping my friends. To help alleviate that stress from them. Their schedules are all conflicting though— Violet barely has internet, Crystal’s always watching her sister, just like Suri and their siblings, and Nadine’s always nose-deep in some Austen novel or at work— so there’s never really a time for us all to talk face-to-face.

So, I just talk to whoever I can, a different person each day on a cycle— I need time to work on my own studies, you know. And my homework too.

II. Chicken Scratch, n. and adj.

Yes, I am aware that Zoom lessons are recorded, and I can go back to them whenever, but who has the time for that? I want to get as much information written down as possible, so I can get whatever random assignment the teacher’s added to their Schoology page done.

I scribble notes down as quickly as I can, as much precise wording as I can. I become a stenographer— no, a machine recording every syllable that travels through our ethernet cable.

The feeling of accomplishment washes over me at the end of Ms. Hendrix’s lecture. That is, until I look back at my notes during the quiz she posted for review, and my notes look like a pile of pine needles on the sidewalk.

III. Daddock, n.

After wrangling Alejandro to sit at a table and practice subtraction for 30 minutes, I realize I need air. I put on my jacket, a scarf around my mouth— per CDC guidelines— and go on a walk.

The first step outside is like the first time you sip cold water after not drinking any for a long time— I don’t realize it until I feel the cold spread through my ribs.

I walk to the end of the culdesac and sit on the curb— acing social distancing the whole time, by the way. There’s a nurse log behind the fence that abruptly ends the road. I sit there. Just sit there watching the moss inch in the wind, sparkles of light from fresh rain blink in the sun, mushrooms stretch their necks like giraffes through the moss canopy.

Everything’s quiet now. I feel my ribs expand as I take a deep breath. Can’t remember the last time I did that.

IV. Ruly, adj.

“Morning, Violet!” I say, holding my phone to my ear. It feels so weird using a phone… as a phone.

“Good morning,” she responds. I can hear the exhaustion in her voice.

“You doing okay? Still no internet?”

“Not yet, no. My mom applied for that free internet offer from Comcast, but they’re booked out for over a month. It’s alright though. Nadine dropped off a couple books on our door for me to read—“ Rusting of plastic fills the pause.”Do you think she reads anything from this century?”

“I think it depends on how you define ‘century.’”

She chuckles, “Within the lifespan of a currently-living person?”

“Results are inconclusive; further research needed.”

We laugh. Hers sounds strained. “It’s just stressful, you know? At first it was like being a tree in a rainstorm, but as soon as school got closed, it’s like the sun went out. I don’t really know what’s happening. The calls from the principal help, I guess?”

“I heard pretty much every phone company is giving their customers unlimited data. Can’t you use that to get the news?”

“Maybe, but Crys is constantly texting me the latest panic-news. She’s like my personal Associated Press. Her takes seem pretty extreme though. I mean, I went on a walk yesterday, and everyone was wearing masks. Like that would help anything.”

“The CDC said everyone should wear masks, Violet. Were you not wearing a mask?”

“No. A random patch of cloth isn’t going to prevent a virus. Plus, if you’re walking far away from people, it’s unnecessary!”

“But it wouldn’t hurt! Shouldn’t people do everything possible to prevent the disease?”

“Yeah, I guess. I just don’t want stuff on my face. It feels weird. It’s weird that stuff feels normal on my arms and stuff but not my face.”

“I know. It was too warm for scarves, but I wore one yesterday anyway. Sometimes you need to make sacrifices for the greater good.”

V. Broigus, adj. and n.

Sunday morning, I wake up hearing frustrated groans from the dining room, sporadic clacking. It all builds up to my mom yelling “Isabella! Get out here!”

I sigh, roll out of bed. Everything feels half speed, like there’s rust in my joints. I drag my feet out of my bedroom, the light of hallway too bright.

“Isabella! I need your help!”

I enter the dining room, see her sitting in front of her old laptop, her glasses down to the tip of her nose. “Yes, Mom. Good morning.”

“Isabella. I can’t get this to work.”

I walk around to see her screen. “Get what to work?”

“Church. It’s online, and I can’t find it.”

“The livestream? Is that what you mean? Did you get a link for it?”

“I don’t know! They said on Facebook they were holding mass online, and I can’t find it.”

“Alright.” I lean over, scroll on the trackpad. “Most Catholics don’t go to mass every Sunday, you know. It’s okay to miss it this one time if you can’t figure it out.”

Her eyes go wide. “Isabella! What are you saying?! It’s Palm Sunday! The Dudosas do not miss mass! Especially during such a holy time!”

“Okay. Okay.” Her prideful fury— while technically a sin, but I’m not going to bring that up to her— is terrifying. “The link is right here, under the status.” I click on it, wait for the stream to load.

The priest’s voice bursts out of the laptop. Mom gasps in delight. “Thank you so much, Isabella! You’re a blessing.”

“No problem, Mom,” I say, turning back toward my room. Behind me, I hear her sip her coffee and the priest read from Matthew.

VI. Geodesy, n.

Every day, around lunch, I go to Johns Hopkins’s COVID-19 map and update a spreadsheet I’ve been maintaining for a couple weeks. Call it biased, but I track each county in Washington. I also check on the major cities in each state though, as well as some other countries.

I track the number of confirmed cases, deaths. I also check any news on what governors or national governments implement— always find an additional source to corroborate. I then go back and update graphs I’ve made. They’re not as good as the professional ones, obviously, but I’m getting better. Maybe I’ll spend spring break trying to get better with pivot tables.

It takes a while, I know, but it’s become meditative. There’s a block of time in the afternoon where I get some quiet, find patterns and logic in the waves of chaos. When things break down into numbers, and I can connect those numbers to actions of people, it gives the haze shape.

VII. Wordsworthiana, n.

On the last day before the closure, in the frantic dash through 30-minute classes, most teachers dumped packets, talked about future units or plans that could be. They talked about due dates, projects being delayed. I remember the strain in their eyes, their sclerae bold around their irises, their hair disheveled.

That is, except for Ms. Hendrix. She sat on her stool in the front of the classroom, her eyes calm, her braids neatly draped over her shoulder. She talked about uncertainty, coping with the feeling of not knowing what the next day or week would bring. I could hear old sadness in her voice.

She read us a poem before class ended. I can’t remember the name or the poet. But, I remember the feeling of comfort, of being an element in Earth’s circuit inside an intricate galaxy. There was a warmth when her voiced lilted as she said the word ‘daffodils.’

VIII. Simon Pure, n. and adj.

Every morning, my mom walks into the kitchen to start the coffeemaker. As she waits for it to brew, she says good morning to Jesus on the crucifix above the sink, hanging between the two window panes. She grabs a copy of the Bible from the shelf with the cookbooks, and thumbs through a few pages until her carafe is full.

Every afternoon, my mom reads the Bible to Alejandro, just like she did to me when I was his age. She reads in both English and Spanish to help him gain fluency in both languages, but to also really drive home Job’s hardship.

Every night, right before bed, she gathers all of us up to pray the Rosary. Alejandro doesn’t quite have each prayer memorized yet, so she says them out loud. Each prayer is punctuated by the quiet clicks of beads moving through fingers, dangling exhausted from our hands.

IX. Arbitrium, n.

Things are difficult for everyone now that, a couple days ago, Governor Inslee announced schools would be online for the rest of the school year. Likewise, everyone deals with their grief and trauma differently. It’s hard to reserve judgement, however, when I see so many people go to the park by my neighborhood.

I keep seeing the numbers of deaths rise every day. Maybe this meditation tactic is starting to wear thin. I feel a shout grow in my chest, but I swallow it, keep it down.

Don’t want to be like my mom, who never hides her judgement. She’s upfront with every person she sees, wether it’s my cousin’s quinces or the produce section of Fred Meyer. It’s mortifying.

X. Armisonous, adj.

There are several signs when my mom is overwhelmed. First, she whispers a Hail Mary under her breath after she steps away from everyone else, the crucifix on her necklace gripped in her fist.

If it gets worse, I hear her Bible’s spine forcefully land on the dining room table, followed by its covers flapping open and the frantic turning of pages as she looks for the right passage. She reads for a couple minutes. Sometimes, she reads it out loud (that’s when we know things are REALLY bad).

She then closes her eyes, takes a few deep breaths, then gets back to the tasks she thinks need to get done.

Religion is a common coping mechanism when someone feels chaos and tragedy gnawing on their ankles. It’s possible God is the generator that kicks in during a power outage. It’s also possible that the act of stopping to breathe is sufficient on its own. But, if God helps get her there, what’s the difference?

XI. Sumi-E, n.

While waiting for my bread to toast this morning, the last Saturday of spring break (according to the Star Wars calendar in the kitchen my dad marks to keep track of time), I look into the hallway, see the section of wall filled with family portraits. My mom insists on subjecting every child to a photoshoot at JC Penny on their fifth birthday.

My eyes stop on Alejandro’s portrait, taken back in September, a few weeks after he started kindergarten. My brother’s hair is neat, the crease straight above his right ear. There’s a teal button-up under a white sweater vest, a red bowtie in front of the top button, fastened tight. He’s smiling.

That picture isn’t really Alejandro though. He can’t sit still for longer than ten seconds. His hair is always tossed, his face covered with candy and souvenirs from that day’s adventure. The picture is an imitation that simply doesn’t capture him— it tells a story that’s easier to understand.

XII. Locuplete, adj.

On Sunday, my mom wakes all of us up early. Despite sleepy protests, she insists we dress up for Easter Mass. Dresses, ties, all of it, to gather around her laptop.

“Don’t you think this is a bit much?” I ask as she watches me brush my hair.

She folder her arms, leans on the doorframe. “It’s Easter, Isabella. We must be our best.”

“I don’t think Jesus would mind if we wore our pajamas to sit in our living room.”

“You can’t go to Mass in your pajamas. Especially on Easter! It’s the most holy day of the year!” She puts her hands on her hips.

I sigh, put in my toothbrush to hopefully end the conversation. She shakes her head, walks away.

When I get out to the living room, her laptop is on the coffee table, the stream ready (proud of her), tall candles lit on either side. There’s even a wine glass filled with juice and a bowl full of Triscuits. She’s so extra.

XIII. Sumpter, n.

Crys answers my call, waves, holds up a finger, walks offscreen. No sound. On her wall is a Harry Styles poster surrounded with pinned ticket stubs and playbills.

She returns with a small plate. “Hi, good morning, sorry, I had to get my bagel and close the door.” She takes a bite, covers her mouth with her wrist. “How are you?”

“I’m alright. My mom went all out for Easter. She even got Triscuits for communion. It was absurd. You guys do anything?”

Crys covers her laugh with a cloth napkin, nods. “My dad thought we should do something, right, but neither he or my mom really know how to conduct service, you know? So, my mom read some passages to tell the story of the Resurrection. My dad then decided to illustrate it afterward with The Passion of the Christ.”

“That gory mess of a movie?!”

“Yes! Lexi was horrified.”

“Wow! What a dad move!”

“It really is!” She continues eating.

“How are you though?”

She nods. “I’m okay. Been really tired for not going anywhere, but we have food and aren’t sick, so I can’t really complain.”

“You’re allowed to complain, Crys. It’s a pandemic.”

“See, you get it. Violet doesn’t get it AT ALL. She still doesn’t have internet— probably won’t get it until after stimulus checks get here, and who knows when that will even happen— so I try to keep her up on the news. Not all of it, obviously, not every press conference is important, but the ones that would affect us somehow, right?”

“Yeah. I talked to her last week about having unlimited data. She hasn’t taken advantage of that?”

“No. She doesn’t like reading on her phone that much. Or being on it in general, I guess?” She shakes her head. “I think it’s a hang-up from never having a big data plan ever.”

“Probably some screen-time paranoia from her mom, too.”

“Oh, absolutely. It’s not like I mind. I’m looking at it anyway, and I talk to her about whatever I’m doing and feeling and whatever. It just feels like an added responsibility. She thinks everyone’s overreacting, and I want to show her they’re not.”

“Right. That sounds stressful.”

“Yeah.” She pauses, looks into the light from her window. “I just miss her. I miss being in the same room as her, you know?”

I nod.

XIV. Summulist, n.

There is no denying that corruption exists within most organized religions. There’s a preponderance of evidence within the Catholic Church alone, but you can find it everywhere. I’m just more familiar with Catholicism, because it’s what I’ve been raised in.

My rift has been growing for a long time. It started with small fissures— inconsistencies between what I was told in school and what I was told in church. I rationalized, tried to find middle ground that could bridge the gaps. But the rhetoric. The narrow-mindedness. The lack of willingness to listen or admit they might be wrong.

It wasn’t any of those things that made me break away. It was when my mom argued with Alejandro’s doctor. They said he should be evaluated for ADHD. She flatly denied. She said her experience was just as good as the established research the doctor gave her. She didn’t even read the pamphlet they gave her. She threw it away.

When she said God would never allow such a thing. When she went on about the overreaction to COVID-19. When we knew people were dying. When we knew children were dying. The idea that a benevolent God would kill children— would give children cancer. I couldn’t take it; it didn’t make any sense. Benevolence would never allow children to suffer— to exist just to snuff them out like candles.

I haven’t told her. I don’t know how to. It’s easy enough to say nothing. Easy enough to go along with the rituals and traditions quietly.

XV. Vel Sim., phr.

I don’t think you can really know whether or not there’s a God. I mean, if you follow the scientific method to its logical conclusion, you can’t really know anything— you just have strong correlations.

Correlations aren’t causations, of course. There could always be some sort of variable that you missed, which is why experiments need to be in controlled settings and must be replicated forever.

But, being “pretty sure” about something feels like “knowing” something, for all intents and purposes, so it’s tedious to split hairs about the difference in most everyday things— like whether the floor will collapse as you walk down the hallway, or whether gravity will suddenly switch directions.

God is a different conversation though. There’s no concrete evidence or experiment to ground either side— it’s all abstract propositions and reasoning. So, it just makes sense to doubt, not devote yourself to a possible void that does not and cannot care about you.

XVI. Henriad, n.

I think it was a year or two ago when Nadine and Crys went through their Shakespeare phase— wait. Ninth grade, after we read Romeo & Juliet. Right. They started reading as many plays as they could and started shoving ‘art’ and ‘thou’ into their sentences.

Crys would not shut up about the historical plays, the ones based on kings. Feudalism this, Renaissance that. Nadine was always more about the characters— she even named her cat Falstaff. There were days at lunch where they’d talk about the themes— on their own, not assigned by a teacher, mind you— of the change, social and political movements shifting through recurring waves of violence.

I think about that a lot now. I’m afraid of the violence that may be coming. It happened back then with kings, now with civil rights. Each social movement met with pain. Change is inevitable, but the violence from climate change may be perpetual. It’s not a change in who wears a crown; it’s a change in how much food and water we have, whose homes get washed away, where those refugees can build new futures.

XVII. Brightshine, n.

It’s easy to get sucked into a dour spiral now. I had to step away from tracking COVID-19 data this week, because it no longer ironed the wrinkles out of my mental bedsheet— it started making caverns. It took me away from the work my teachers started posting, which came like a river after a dam breaks. So, I need to find something else to balance myself.

“Have you tried gardening?” Nadine asked yesterday. I had her on speaker as I made Alejandro’s lunch.

“Gardening? Really?”

“Yeah,” her voice was accompanied by Target’s speakers playing an upbeat pop song that was familiar in the vague cultural-osmosis way. “Taking care of a plant is calming to a bunch of people. My mom used to do it all the time… There’s science that backs it up.”

She gets me.

“Am I just supposed to dig in the yard and throw seeds in?”

“Good. Lord. You know better than that. You have a pot somewhere? You know what, I’ll take care of it after my shift.”

When I woke up this morning, my mom told me there was a bag left by the front door with my name on it, a Target bag. Inside, there was a small pot, some dirt in a Ziplock bag, a small sprout of something (so cute), and an “It’s a Girl!” greeting card. Inside the card, she wrote a list of steps to “take care of your newborn.”

After breakfast, I carefully place the sprout and its dirt clump in the pot with the other dirt, set it on the windowsill by my desk, water it with an old measuring cup I found in the back of a kitchen cabinet. I wonder what she’ll be when she grows up, what her major will be. She probably needs a name.

XVIII. Ben-Feaker, n.

“Isabella, will you say Grace? It’s your turn.”

“Really, Mom? It’s just Five Guys.”

She puts both hands on the table. “Yes. It is food, and we must be thankful. Not everyone has food to eat or money to spend on food! You are lucky to not know the toll of poverty.”

“I know. I’m aware. You don’t have to tell me about what it was like in Colombia before you came here again. I’m sorry.”

She tilts her head, smiling. “Good, so now you say Grace.”

I put my hands together, fidgeting with my fingers, watch everyone else close their eyes and bow their heads. I clear my throat, “Heavenly Father…”

I’m not really conscious of what I’m saying. My mouth goes on cruise control, saying whatever comes to it. I snap back in after I say, “So say we all.” I cringe before concluding, “Amen,” then quickly unwrapping my burger to make as much interfering noise as possible.

“Thank you, Isabella. That was beautiful,” Mom says, gently unfolding the foil from her lettuce-bunned burger.

My dad chews on some fries, furrowing his brow. “Was that from Battlestar Galactica?”

I freeze.

“Excuse me?” My mom asks.

“I think Izzy added a line from a that sci-fi show she always watches into Grace.”

“Isabella. Did you taint Grace with this… science show?”

I gulp. “Well, yes. I didn’t realize it was happening, but I did, and I think it works well with the whole thankfulness thing, becau—“

“Grace should from your heart! Not some awful television show.”

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA IS A MASTERPIECE! WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?!”

I place my hand over my mouth, exhale through my nose. “Sorry, Mama.” 

She nods at me. “Well, is John Leguizamo in it?”

I squint. “Uh… no?”

“Then I stand by what I said.”

My dad laughs so hard, he has to cough into his napkin. “That’s your barometer?”

“HE IS A TRIPLE THREAT! WHAT MORE COULD YOU WANT?!”

XIX. Ember Months, n.

“So, they’re trekking across a glacier that has ancient runes etched into its face like giant crop circles, right—“

“Wouldn’t the etching make the glacier more vulnerable to melting or breaking apart? Like, icebergs and st—“

“It’s. Magic. It’s always magic. Ma. Gic.”

“True. True. Alright, so there are runes that are huge, but Kordra totally knows what they are, sure. Go ahead.”

“Ye of little faith. They were told by mages who flew by the icescape and read it. Nice try.” Suri sips her tea. “But then, get this, as they approach the ruins of a temple abandoned millennia ago— preserved by the frozen tundra, don’t even try me— they see a dim glow deep within one of the caverns.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. They carefully step toward it, right, only to brush against some loose shards along the wall. The icicles clang on cavern floor and echo into the dark. They freeze. Then a loud PACHOO and a bolt of light shoots over their shoulder.”

“Whoa. Wait—”

“Yes! The ruins were being excavated… by Martians!”

I erupt into excited cheering. Suri laughs at me. Listening to them tell Korda’s adventures is always fun, but this is the first time one of my ideas happened.

They used to tell me about what happened every week in their campaign at Glacier View’s D&D club, where some teacher there is their dungeon master. Since the closure, they haven’t been able to meet. It turns out, this week, their group met over Zoom.

“That was AMAZING!” I yell.

“I know! I didn’t think he’d actually go with the idea at all after I messaged him, but he did!”

It almost feels like before. The gradual return to what used to be. It’s different, but there’s a semblance of normalcy returning, new schemas and routines taking hold.

It’s like the transformation of a cottonwood between seasons— blooming in spring and summer only to wither to bare branches in the fall and winter. They have to strip away all the excess, find what’s necessary, then build on that to grow into their new selves.

XX. Yark, n.

Whenever things start to feel normal, a pang comes to remind me it isn’t. There’s a pain that brings me back to the reality that this is a burden hanging over our shoulders.

It comes when I hear Alejandro in his room at a Zoom meeting talking to his classmates. When he tells his friend Jaxson he should come over to play. When I have to tell him that it isn’t possible. When I have to explain social distancing to him again, knowing it’s incredibly hard for him to understand and remember.

It comes when I see the playground at the park by our house wrapped up in caution tape like a crime scene. Its fields empty and silent. Like the park itself died.

XXI. Bagel, v.

Alejandro’s teacher included a time slot for creativity in this week’s plans. One of the options she listed was “putting together a jigsaw puzzle.” Since Alejandro had depleted all of his crayons drawing pictures of Minecraft characters in his notebook yesterday, I thought a puzzle would be a nice change of pace.

“So what’s this supposed to be?” he asks while turning over pieces we dumped on the coffee table.

“It’s the mask of Tutankhamun,” I say, moving remotes and coasters to a side table.

He stops flipping pieces and stares at me. “Mask of what-are-you-talking-about?”

“King Tut! He was a pharaoh in ancient Egypt.”

“The pyramids!”

“Yes. That’s where the pyramids are. He took the throne when he was only eight years old.”

“What?!” He dramatically flopped his arms over his head.

“I know! Can you imagine ruling over a society at your age?”

“Yes! I would give everyone ice cream all the time.”

“Even the people who are lactose intolerant?”

“You use a lot of big words that don’t make sense.”

“You’re right.”

As soon as all the pieces are face up, Alejandro says, “I’m going to win the puzzle.”

“What? I don’t think that’s how—“

“These two are together! I get two points!” He holds up his proof.

“You found them like that!”

“Doesn’t matter! I’m winning!”

XXII. Stupor Mundi, n.

There’s something therapeutic about assembling a picture piece by piece, having to look at how each shape interacts with the others, how they all fit together. I’m lost in the process until my phone buzzes, and I see that it’s been an hour.

In that hour, Alejandro and I talked about a lot of things: how he was frustrated with his schoolwork, what he wanted to build in Minecraft, the new Pokémon cards Jaxson had showed in their last Zoom meeting (their teacher tried to have a virtual playdate where each student showed off a toy or game).

He managed to stay focused for the entire hour. He usually loses interest or changes gears in maybe ten minutes on any given activity— Easter mass required “wiggle breaks.”

He even asked me questions about ancient Egypt when he’d put together parts of the mask (after announcing how many points he was up to, of course). I told him as much as I could remember from when we learned about Egypt in 6th grade. I’m telling him about pharaohs when my phone buzzes.

“So they were like kings?” he asks, jamming two pieces together that don’t fit.

“Yeah, kinda,” I nod, seeing the time. I put my phone face down on the arm of our couch. “But they were also seen as gods. That’s what the pryram—”

“False gods,” my mom says as she walks through the living room into the kitchen. She does not pause or slow her gait. The clack of her Bible on counter punctuates the lesson.

XXIII. Philobiblist, n.

“So, have you given her a name yet?” Nadine asks, sitting on the floor of her room, leaning against the blue comforter of her bed. Over her shoulder, I can see a stack of paperbacks with Goodwill pricetags on her nightstand.

“Who?”

“Wow.” She shakes her head. “You are such a terrible mother. You forgot about your child?! Wow.”

“Oh! you mean the plant! I didn’t forget about her! She’s right here!” I reach behind my laptop, pick up the small pot from its place on the windowsill above my desk. “I’ve been feeding her every day. Don’t worry. She’s even growing! Look!” I hold the plant up to the camera.

“Yes she has! How are you sleeping? Is she a crier? Colicky?”

“Uh… No?”

“Phew. That’s good. I mean, you’d love her no matter what, I get it, but you must be thankful to have such a low-maintenance baby. Mine on the other hand—” she reaches over her shoulder to the nightstand. She lowers her arm to reveal a small pot just like mine, with a similar sprout. “She’s hit that adventurous age where you have to childproof the house.”

“Aww! She’s so cute!”

“I know! Elinor is going to be a senator one day. She’s gonna give all the other wildflowers free healthcare.” She boops Elinor, then puts her back on the nightstand.

“How did you get the name Elinor?”

Sense & Sensibility, Isabella. Read a book— a not-science book. So, have you given your daughter a name or not?”

“I haven’t. It’s hard naming things!”

“First of all, people aren’t things; don’t be rude. Second of all, you just need to give her whatever name comes to you when you look at her.”

I look down at the little sprout in my hands. “You said her sister is a wildflower?”

“Yeah.”

Tilting the pot back and forth, the sprout waves her head back and forth like she’s dancing. “Lupine. I think her name is Lupine.”

“Lupine?”

“It’s a wildflower indigenous to the Mt. Rainier—“

“Oh. Gotcha. That makes way more sense. I thought you were talking about wolves for a second.”

XXIV. Mauvais Ton, adj.

Friday afternoon, Alejandro and I continue on the Tutankhamun puzzle after he finishes math work. The puzzle’s been a good motivator for him completing his schoolwork.

“I finished the edge! That’s another 50 points! Let’s goooo!” He jumps up, runs in a circle, cycles through several Fortnite dances he’s seen.

He asks about pharaohs being gods, so I tell him about their beliefs and the pyramids. I’m talking about how the tombs had things they liked while they lived when Mom tells him it’s his bath time.

He sighs, looks at me. “Don’t put any in until I’m back!”  He gets up, Naruto runs down the hallway.

As soon as the bathroom door closes, Mom turns to me, arms crossed. “I wish you wouldn’t talk to him about that Egyptian gods stuff. He’s too young for that.”

“It’s history, Mom. Learning about culture is instrumental in a growing child.”

“He’s too young. He needs to learn math and spelling. Leave religion,” she places her hand on her crucifix, “to me.”

“I’m not trying to convert him. I’m just telling him about another culture.”

Her hands move to her hips. “You spend an awful lot of time talking about gods and the afterlife for talking about ‘culture,’” she air quotes.

“It’s a big part of their culture. You can’t talk about Colombian culture without talking about Catholicism. It’s the same thing.”

“No, it’s not! That’s OUR culture, OUR religion. It’s different.”

“He can learn about the stuff he is, but not the stuff he isn’t? The only god he can hear about is the one in this house? He can’t learn about anything else?”

“I feel like you’re trying to trap me, and I won’t allow it. I am your mother. I say you can’t talk to him about this, so you will not. That is final.”

A swarm caught in my chest— I feel them push against my ribs.

“You shouldn’t put such sinful ideas in his head.”

My arms go limp. “It’s not a sin to learn about other people.” I stand up, grip my elbows in my cold hands. “Ignorance perpetuates hatred, bigotry, racism. He needs to learn that there are different people with different beliefs, and that it’s okay.”

Before she says anything, I walk by her, down the hallway, into my room.

XXV. Puntabout, n.

I resist the urge to slam the door. Lupine peaks over the edge of her pot to check on me.

“I don’t know what to do, Lupe.” I sit in my desk chair, close my laptop.

She tilts her head empathetically.

“She just—“ my hands cover my face. Deep breath in and out.

“She’s just so… narrow-minded. The world is too big, there’s too much to learn, to put age-restrictions on so much information.”

I flop my hands down, palms up. “It’s not like he’s going to start worshipping Ra just because he hears about him. It’s just so weird for someone so devout to be so insecure about those beliefs.

“Yes, I know I don’t believe in the whole Catholic thing anymore, but I wasn’t trying to push Alejandro away from it! It’s his journey to have. He enjoys the time Mom spends reading the Bible to him. It’s not my place to disrupt any of that.”

I rub my right temple. The fading sunlight casts an orange glow on Lupine’s face.

“She’s just trying her best, Lupe. It’s all she knows.” I gently caress her head with my index finger. “I can’t let her hold his education hostage though.”

I grab the measuring cup I keep on my desk for Lupine and water her.

XXVI. Saturnine, adj. and n.

Saturday morning, a rainstorm rolls over Puyallup. Grey light comes through the window in my room. i rub my eyes, then scold myself for touching my eyes, as the rain pours silent. No thunder, not even the subtle tapping of rain hitting the driveway.

i stay in my room for as long as i can. my room is mine. It’s my space. i don’t feel welcome outside of it right now, like i’ve become the antagonist in some religious crusade. Maybe i am. Maybe i am corrupting Alejandro.

But, should asking questions be frowned upon? It shouldn’t make me feel isolated. i don’t think i should have to accept everything blindly— skepticism is healthy. Why can’t she see that?

XXVII. Mimesis, n.

Monday morning, I get Alejandro set up at the dining room table for his weekly Zoom meeting with his class. I sit on the couch in the living room, my feet on the edge of the coffee table now decorated with Tutankhamun’s complete mask, to work on calculus. The couch faces away form the dining room, but I can still hear him— seems like a good-enough illusion of privacy for him while still keeping him supervised.

“Okay, Alejandro. It’s your turn. What did you do this weekend?” Ms. Davis asks.

“It was GREAT! Me and my sister finished a puzzle of King Tutankhamun. He was a pharaoh in ancient Egypt and ruled when he was a teenager. I won the puzzle one billion points to 245!”

“That’s a lot!” Ms. Davis says, her voice uncertain. “When did you start wearing glasses?”

I stop writing, look over the back of the couch.

“Um,” Alejandro looks over his shoulder at me, then quickly turns back to the laptop and takes them off. “They’re not mine.” He places them on the table. “They’re my sister’s. She’s super smart. She knows everything about Egypt like she told me—“

I turn back to my calculus work, nudge the rim my glasses with the knuckle of my thumb as I wipe the corner of my eye (stop touching your eyes, Isabella).

“I would be buried with my Mega-Charizard-EX!” Jaxson yells.

I stifle a laugh. I especially have to as Alejandro tries to explain how cards would deteriorate over the millennia.

XXVIII. Sub Voce, adv.

For dinner, Mom made tamales— a recipe she got from her mom who got it from her mom, and so on. She tells Alejandro to set the table as they finish steaming on the stove.

He gives the silverware and napkins sound effects as he places them. Many crashes and explosions litter the table surface. He then turns on his heels to the living room to announce, “Dinner tiiiiiime!”

We all sit at the table as my mom puts a serving dish in the middle. She sits, places her napkin in her lap, says, without looking up, “Isabella, please say Grace.”

I tense up, bite the inside of my cheek. “I, um, would rather not.”

Mom freezes like a video that needs to buffer. She looks at me. “What do you mean?”

“I, uh, mean,” I stammer, adjusting my glasses, “that I don’t wanna say Grace.”

“Why not? Are you not well?”

I speak slow, trying to analyze every word I say. “No— no, that’s not it. I’m alright. I’m just not… sure.”

“What?”

“About the whole… prayer thing. It just doesn’t feel… right… right now.”

She freezes again, blinks a couple times slowly. My dad and Alejandro are silent, still.

“Are you saying you’re… you don’t believe… in God?” I can hear the heartbreak in her voice.

I look down. “I’m not sure that’s the right wording for it, Mama. I just don’t know what… is.”

A tense silence. I can’t look up from my plate.

“Mama, I’ll say it,” Alejandro says quickly. “I’ll say it so great.”

She nods.

He stumbles through a prayer that feels like ten prayers mashed together. I don’t hear a lot of it over my own mortification. I can’t believe I would be so foolish as to bring all of that up now of all times in such a stupid, clumsy way.

He clears his throat, then concludes, “So say we all. Amen.”

XXIX. Awesomesauce, adj.

I sit at my desk, forehead on the ball of my right hand.

“It’s going to be okay,” Suri says. “She’ll calm down at some point, and you’ll be able to talk to her. You spoke your truth, dude. That’s a hard thing to do sometimes, but it’s better to get it out there rather than bottle it up forever.”

I quickly breathe in and out through my nose, look up at my laptop screen and see their face, pale and tired in the morning light from their window. “Thanks. Does Ramadan make you more wise?”

“No, I don’t think so. I’m always this wise. I’m just more hungry and tired now.”

“That’s all you get? That doesn’t seem like a good deal.”

“It’s a spiritual thing, Isabella. There’s sacrifice, yeah, but you get clarity and become closer to Allah and your community.”

“Huh. That’s pretty neat.”

“It’s nice for you to say so— as a nonbeliever, I mean.”

“Oh, no problem. Fasting isn’t that strange of a tradition, really. Some Catholics believe the eucharist LITERALLY turns into the flesh of Jesus as it goes down their esophagus.”

“Dude. What.”

“I. Know. So, not that strange. All cultures have those kinds of things. I like learning about ‘em, you know? People are weird; the human condition is weird. We’re all just trying out best, right?”

“Yeah,” they nod pensively. “The wafer turns into actual skin and stuff though? Wild. That’s a Death Spells song if I’ve ever heard one.”

XXX. Puppify, v.

She’s my mom. It’s her house. I can live with her practicing her religion and raising her family in the way she wants. I’m not going to actively argue or ridicule her beliefs. I’ll even go along with the prayers. There’s nothing wrong with being thankful or reflective. I can participate in her rituals until I go to college.

Soon, I’ll be able to be outside of this bedroom without feeling her coldness. Maybe it’s more of a shock thing. Maybe it’s like grieving. She just needs time.

Lying on my bed, I look over at Lupe sitting in her little pot on the windowsill. I know my mom still loves me. I’d love Lupe no matter what. She’s my daughter. Even if she told me she wanted to major in business or start going to church. I mean, I’d certainly worry if sh—

“Don’t become a Scientologist, Lupe! Promise me!”

She nods.

Thank goodness. I’m not worried about her. She has a good bulb on her shoulders. She’s going to be alright.

Continued in Part V: Nadine Sauer.

Cottonwood Seeds en Route: III. Suri Dihan

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

This is the third entry in Cottonwood Seeds en Route. It is a continuation of Part II: Crystal Coleus.

I. Amour Fou, n.

“Morning, Suri!”

I finish the outline of
the swoop of the prince’s hair
(the kingdom’s kinda stuck in their 2000s-emo phase)
before looking up.

When I do,
Crys and Violet
are standing across the table,
holding hands.

“We have something we want to tell you,”
Crys says, blushing.
Violet is smiling
more than I’ve ever seen.

“Alright,” I say,
placing my pencil
in the crease of my sketchbook.

Crys stutters.
“Well, umm,”
she looks at Violet, who nods.
“We’re dating.”

“Oh my god, you guys!
That’s awesome!
I’m so happy for the both of you!”
I get out of my seat and hug them both.

I act surprised, but it’s obvious—
she watched The Good Place
within a week of Violet telling her about it.
I’ve bugged her about She-Ra forever.


II. Plutography, n.

Obsidian and ruby—
Carefully I draw in the shine on the prince’s necklace.
His silk robes, black as night,
wave in his castle’s courtyard’s breeze.

Is eyeliner too much?
Nah. He’s totally in his feelings.

He holds a goblet in his left hand
as a servant nervously pours wine in it.
A small band of lyre players perform
by a line of pink tulips in the background.

Kordra kneels in front of him, 
blushing, accepting their quest.


III. Informator Choristarum, n.

When I was in 7th grade, I was so excited
to join the choir.
My family sang all the time—
I always stole the solo or lead.

But there was a huge difference between
the music the director chose and
the Irani songs my family sang.

It didn’t feel like I fit there;
I was otherworldly.


IV. Astroparticle, n. (and adj.)

I don’t remember
if I’ve seen a student who looks like me
in Puyallup.
We have to drive to Tacoma for the nearest mosque.

It was hard for my parents,
when they moved here, being othered
everywhere they went, especially
after 9/11,
through 2003, when I was born.


V. Booky, adj.

Wednesday night,
I drive to Target,
clock in, walk to the break room,
put my purse in my locker.

“Hey Suri.”
Nadine sits at one of the tables,
doesn’t seem to look up from
The Things They Carried.

“Hey. Break or waiting for your shift?”
Nadine has a habit
of going straight to work after school
to read uninterrupted until her shift started.

She picks up an old notecard,
one of its edges curled and brown from age
(and probably spilt coffee).
“Waiting.
Tim O’Brien demands attention.”

“Because… of how they carry things?”

“Oof. Stop,”
she laughs,
gets up, puts the book in her locker.


VI. Geodynamo, n.

My parents
have always pushed me to do my best.
Their jobs are similar to mine,
which is why
I had to start working when I turned 16
to help support our family.

My parents
always talk about me becoming a doctor
or an engineer for Microsoft, but
I just want to draw.

My parents
talk about UW as much as Crys
(somehow possible), but
I keep looking at
student work on Cornish’s website,
Art Assignment videos on YouTube,
Muslim comics on Instagram.


VII. Historicist, n. and adj.

It feels necessary
to look into the past,
bring it with you,
showcase it somehow.
The past made what you are, you know?

That’s what occupies me
as I set up the endcap for
Hearth & Hand.


VIII. Metamathematics, n.

COVID-19 spreading
into Washington 
unearthed
what I thought was dying.
Brown skin
seems to be enough to
label as infected,
warrant wide berths in the hallway.

Usually,
it’s an occasional “joke,”
like some white boy in a COD shirt says
”Allahu Akbar”
before simulating an explosion
when I enter a classroom.

Or,
there’s a hesitance
when an adult tries to explain
something President Trump said.
It doesn’t really matter what—
they take long pauses, staring at me
while they talk.

My mom
lectures me about not wearing a hijab,
while Crys
lectures me about how they’re oppressive.

As if
anything
is that clear-cut.


XI. Trainspotting, n.

Everyone else
walks around
like they belong,
like they have a role to play,
like they are pieces of the same puzzle.

I
feel like I’m
sitting on a bench,
watching each one pass by,
losing count.


X. Geometric Progression, n.

Nervous.
Uncomfortable.
Like background noise.
Made worse
seeing people fit into boxes
with ease.
Like they come with instruction manuals.

I feel like
I can never find my box.
Maybe that’s why
my hijab never felt right.


XI. German Tinder, n.

When Crys asked me
why I never wear a hijab,
I told her it’s because
I wanted to be liberated.

When my mom asked me
why I never wear a hijab,
I told her it’s because
of racism at school.

Last year, one night
when my parents were getting groceries,
I put my dad’s taqiyah on my head
to see what it felt like.

It felt
the same way
my hijab felt—
not right.


XII. Timelily, adv.

It was during lunch this morning,
at the end of a half-day for conferences
that were canceled due to COVID-19,
when Isabella looked up
from her magnetism notes
to say to Nadine,

“Did Suri show you
her
drawing Kordra slicing off an ettin’s heads?”

It chafed.
It felt wrong.
I wanted to say something, but
I didn’t know how.

After I got home,
I got an email saying
tomorrow
is the last school day for at least six weeks.

It feels like something I should tell them in person,
the way Crys and Violet did.
Nadine and Isabella supported them—
Violet used Kordra’s pronouns right after I told her.

Tomorrow has to be the day.


XIII. Train-Scent, n.


Friday morning, snow
falls on the bus window,
blankets the grass and tree branches.
Static from the tires turns into
static from confused teachers turns into
static from the lunchroom.

Nadine is the last one to our table,
placing The Handmaid’s Tale next to her sandwich.
They’re all here.
I wait for a lull.

“Hey, uh.
There’s something I wanna tell you guys.”
They all turn to me; my throat is dry.
“Um, I’ve been feeling, uh, off lately,
like something isn’t fitting, and
I think that thing might be me.

“I mean— this is hard.
You know how Kordra is non-binary?
Well,
I think I might be too.”

There’s a silence. I can’t tell how long.

“So,” Isabella starts,
“do you want us to start
using they/them pronouns for you?”

“Um. Yeah. I think so.”

“No problem,” Crys smiles.
“Thank you for letting us know.
That was a brave thing you did.”
She starts to go for a fist bump, stops,
offers her elbow
for a more-hygienic elbow bump.


XIV. Uranography, n.

The night Kordra returns to the capital
to return the king’s scepter—
which cultists stole
for a ritual to summon a harpy army—
they walk to a hill on the edge of town
that overlooks the city and its harbor.

They lie against a madrone,
start connecting constellations.
Legends still play out
in the blue-black fabric.
Small figures move across a map
dodging dragon wings and poison fog.


XV. Black Friar, n.

“Now, just because schools are canceled doesn’t mean that you aren’t going to continue your studies.”

“I know, mom.”

“You will spend seven hours a day studying. An hour with the Quran, an hour with math, an hour with history, an hour reading. Each of your classes, you will find a way to study. No exceptions.”

“I understand. I will do my best. But, what if my hours at work change due to the closures, though?”

“Your studies come first! You are a student. Your school must be your first priority.”

“Alright. I’ll make it work.”


XVI. House-Lew, n.

Monday,
the first would-be-school day at home,
I wake up early,
start studying before my parents wake up.

When they do, they prepare quick breakfasts,
head to their jobs,
which, thankfully, haven’t been suspended
yet.

After the sun rises,
I prepare
eggs and toast
for my
brother and sister.

After they eat,
I send them to their rooms to read while
I clean the living room—
disinfect, sweep, vacuum—
then sit down to study trig.


XVII. Fleadh Cheoil, n.

Day two.

After lunch,
I clear the living room,
tell Yusef and Amina
to not go back to their rooms.

For about an hour,
I show them dances
our grandmother taught me
when I was their age.
I sing the songs myself.

Yusef giggles
as he trips over his own legs.
Amina murmurs
the lyrics under her breath,
gradually raising her volume.


XVIII. - Securiform, adj.

Day three.

I scoop same blackberry jam
on one of our small, rubber spatulas,
spread it on a slice of wheat bread
for Yusef’s sandwich.

“Suri,
I really liked the dance you showed us yesterday.”

“I’m glad, but
you’re not getting extra jam on your sandwich,”
I say,
pointing the spatula at him accusingly.

“No, no. It was just fun.
I’ve never really danced like that before.”
He looks at the counter,
rubbing his wrist with his other hand.

“I could teach you more today.
The same dance?
A different one?”

“That’s— well, is it normal for boys to dance?”

“Of course, Yusef. Everyone dances.”

“But none of my friends dance.
And you taught us a girl dance.”

“Dances are dances, Yusef.
You can dance whatever dance you want to.”


XIX. Talavera, n.

Day four.

I get the urge
to make something
with my hands.

My sketchbook:
buried in my backpack,
untouched since Friday.

Yesterday, I shelved
these bowls at work that were
an obvious, mass-produced appropriation.

Maybe I can try to draw
in the style like those bowls’s patterns,
fuse their culture to mine.

All art
borrows, blends;
we are all one.


XX. Baselard, n.

When Kordra was young,
they walked everywhere,
a dagger holstered on their hip.

Not welcome
by a family who
praised an unforgiving god,
lamented a blight on their names,
hid their faces in public.

When Kordra left home,
they walked across the kingdom,
a dagger pang in their chest.

Not welcome
by civilians who
glared at their dark skin,
winced at their accent,
scoffed at their pronouns.


XXI. Colour-de-Roy, n. and adj.

The morning sun slips in the throne room
when Kordra returns the king’s scepter.

The king rises out of his seat, walks to them.
His hand appears from under his purple robe,
a victorious eagle embroidered on his chest.

He accepts the scepter in his left hand,
His right on Kordra’s shoulder.
“Thank you, Kordra.
You have done a great service for our kingdom.
I am so sorry for how our order has treated you.
You have brought great honor to yourself and
the Order of the Cottonwood.
Our kingdom owes you dearly.”

Applause echoes off the aged stone walls.
Loud, overwhelming, Kordra starts to tear up.
In the last moment of clarity,
before their vision blurs completely,
they see the prince rise from his throne,
his smirk, his smooth hands clapping.


XXII. - Frammis, n.

“What does that even mean?
I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

It turns out
a pandemic
isn’t the best time
to come out
to your orthodox parents.

“That makes no sense.
There are men and women.
That’s it.
You think you’re a man?”

“No.
I don’t feel like a man or a woman.”

“Nonsense.
You are a woman.
You’ve been a woman your whole life.”

“Sex assigned at birth
has nothing
to do with gender,
Dad.”

“Of course it does!
It always has and always will!”

“It doesn’t have to!”
I pause to breathe,
to flatten the wrinkles in my mind’s bedsheet.
“Look,
cottonwood trees have either
male or female
reproductive organs—“

“Trees have organs?”

“The seeds, Dad.
That biological fact
doesn’t change how you see or treat
the tree;
you’d still walk up to it,
look at the fractured sky through its branches.
Gender is something people made up—
it has nothing to do with
the body a person lives in.”


XXIII. Bridge Coat, n.

For Kordra,
after the ceremony,
the prince fastens up his coat,
invites them to join him on a walk
with a head nod.

For me,
after I come out to my parents,
my father zips up his jacket,
rubs his eyes with his hands
as he shakes his head,
leaves.


XXIV. Macaronic, adj. and n.

Not going outside
except for work—
limited for me
by my mother’s request—
has disrupted my laundry cycle.
Nothing
seems dirty enough
to justify the necessary
water consumption
of the washer.

My clothes piled on my dresser
like a messy beanie.
My hamper
empty
as a classroom.


XXV. Leggiadrous, adj.

day nine, i think.
tuesday, i’m pretty sure.

feels like
i’m watching my family
live out a bad multicam sitcom—
unfunny and boring, an unlikable protagonist,
a formulaic rhythm.

that suri
wakes up, makes breakfast, studies
like everything is fine.
she
smiles and laughs and plays with her siblings
like it’s a normal day.

how does she do that?
she never misses a beat.
how does she keep up?
i’m exhausted.


XXVI. Proclivity, n.

Today, I take a break from
babysitting and acting like I’m reading
to draw.

I never realized
how normal
being around people all day
is in my life.
The absence is palpable
like a baking aisle without flour.

My hand sketches
outlines of people,
a crowd gathered for a concert, maybe—
shoulder to shoulder.

I miss
Isabella’s facts about Mars,
school-Nadine’s book recommendations,
Cris’s arbitrary soapboxes,
Violet’s questions about everything.

Their faces appear
on the figures in the front row.


XXVII. Wallydraigle, n.

It’s hard.
Competence.
Feeling any of it.

My laptop has endless
notifications from teachers posting assignments.
The counters have endless
dust from so many meals made each day.

Did I use this glass yesterday?
Did I shower this morning?
What day is it?


XXVIII. Anaerobe, n.

This morning, Isabella Skypes me—
still in the oversized sweater she slept in,
unkempt hair lazily scrunchied,
drinking from her SciShow mug.

Her way of coping with everything
is focusing on data, making charts—
I’ve never seen anyone
tear through a spreadsheet fast as her.

After she shows me some graphs she made
(so proud, that nerd), she asks,
“So, how have you been holding up?”

“Getting by, you know.
I gotta take care of
Amina and Yusef during the day,
but it’s all manageable.”

“That’s good. What about you though?
You been drawing?
Kordra go on any adventures?”

“Here and there, when I can.
It’s hard to find time.”

“I know what you mean—
Alejandro keeps me busy too.”
A Doppler effect of giggles and stomping;
she turns her gaze off frame.
“Can I ask you something about Kordra?”

“Uhh… sure.”

“Could they, like,
travel to another planet and fight aliens?”

A pause.
Laughter explodes from me,
the hardest I’ve laughed in what feels like years.
“What!?”

“What!? I wanted to help you think of adventures!”

“I don’t think space travel works in D&D!
They wouldn’t be able to breathe!”

“Sure.
Dragons and magic are totally logical,
but you draw the line
at the vacuum of space and aliens?
Preposterous.
There has to be a spell or something for that!”

“Why is everything always about
space
with you!?”

“Why is everything about
hunky, non-binary paladins
with you!?”

I laugh so hard, I cry.
We should so this more.


XXIX. Cockshut, n.

From the desk in my bedroom,
I can see the edge of ER’s roof,
which turns goldenrod as the sun sets.
It makes me think about endings.

How
this closure will end,
my time in school will end,
lives end—
how the day dies in long, drawn-out breaths.

When my grandmother was dying,
she showed me
an old painting by Massoud Arabshahi
she snuck a picture of at a museum back in Iran.
She said it stopped her in her tracks—
the cool colors, warm circles scattered
like a map of watchtowers or
“Allah’s ever-presence” as she put it—
so full of comfort
and anxiety at the same time.

She gave me that picture that day.
I keep it
above my desk,
next to the window where I can see
the sun’s shadow engulf the world. 


XXX. Baby Blues, n.

Can’t stay mad
at my mom
being so overbearing.

The last time
she was this
intense was after
Amina was born.

New checklists everyday,
every moment scheduled—
desperately seeking structure.

If she can
get through all
that, maybe she’ll
see me for
me one day.


XXXI. Sumpitan, n.

And so, Kordra
lays their sword across their palms,
kneels before the prince.

He grazes the blade with his fingertips.
“Are you really done
protecting our kingdom?”

They chuckle, shake their head.
“No,
the journey is never over, Your Grace.
It just changes shape.”
They lower the sword onto a cloth—
fine silk, black (duh)—
swaddle it, hand it to the prince.

They rise to their feet,
lift their pack onto their shoulders,
a spear knotted to its side.
They walk away, stop in the threshold.
“When you need me,
you’ll know where to find me,” they say.
They wink at the prince, and leave.

Continued in Part IV: Isabella Dudosa.

A Story, Sure.

I’m not good at beginnings and endings. I have trouble choosing the most impactful points in time for them.

By the time you read this, I’ve figured out how the story ends. If I care about the efficiency of communicating information to you, I’d get to the point and tell you that George gets a promotion at work, loses his wife, and leaves a cult with his existential issues still intact. The specific points in time don’t matter, since George fails to change after the Thursday on which all of these temporal slices occur.

But, without context, you probably don’t care about George, his job, or his wife. Most readers, not you, of course, would demand for some sort of event to help you bond with George. They want to derive meaning out of whatever happens to him, even if there is nothing to read into.


So, I have to give you a beginning. I just don’t know what the right beginning for George’s story is.

I could be a pretentious art film, start with the Big Bang.

We start with a boom, a matte white screen that fades to black, then two nebulas form. Purple clouds that spiral, pull together, form two stars. We watch them play a game with gravity until they make a binary star system. 

They orbit each other. Sometimes farther apart, sometimes closer, until they collide. There’s a large spark; the orchestra crescendos. Bright chunks of matter fly in all directions, and the screen goes dark.

You’d probably read this as an allegory (or, if the academics protest, at least a solid metaphor) to foreshadow what happens to George. You can do that, if you wish.


Or, I could choose to start the story before George was born; I could tell you about his parents.

They were typical products of the 60s. Long hair, flowers punctuating their hairlines. They misdirected their frustration with a war they disagreed with on the veterans of said war. It was embarrassing for everyone.

His parents never really settled down. They fought on a regular basis about things that ultimately didn’t amount to much more than which nightly news show they should watch during dinner.

But, none of that is really necessary to George’s story; as none of that involves George directly. Yes, this could be another example of reading into foreshadow for how George’s life shapes. But, of course, it doesn’t, because he never met them. They gave him up for adoption immediately after he was born. 

I should have said that earlier. All apologies.


I don’t really know how to tell you what happened to George. 

I really just wanted to tell you that on Thursday, May 14th, 2015, George woke up later than usual, after spending Wednesday night at the temple of a religious organization (i.e. a cult) he joined a few weeks prior. 

He followed a breeze from the folded-open sheets across the bed to the open bedroom door.

He walked by some copies of The Secret his sister got him piled on his dresser on his way to the closet.

He decided that Thursday, May 14th, and all Thursdays that dare to be May 14ths are doomed days.

Until he got to work, oddly enough, where his manager had interpreted his past few brooding months as introspection on the process the business uses to boost sales, and, consequently, gave him a promotion to sales director.


But, is that where his story ends? Should that be where I leave it?

I mean, George persists after that Thursday. 

In the research we did on Thursdays that happened to be May 14ths after that day, the results were inconclusive; they were just as chaotic and random as any other Thursday or May 14th.

George didn’t keep his job forever. He came back from his divorce in better spirits. He did not, however, overcome his ennui.

Usually, the author wouldn’t tell you this. They’d leave you with the end of that Thursday, and you’d go on your way thinking that George had a good life afterward.

I can’t do that, though. 


George’s life wasn’t tragic by any means.

He didn’t suffer terribly much, aside from the lung cancer that eventually killed him.

He lasted long enough to retire from his job. The office had a retirement party, where he saw all the people he didn’t know celebrate the fact that they got cake during work.

He grew old enough to start forgetting things. He forgot the foster homes he stayed in, his first wife. He remembered his 3rd grade teacher being awfully strict, though. 

His children discussed this peculiarity with his doctors, and they all scratched their heads and shrugged their shoulders.

They don’t know what caused it. Or what it meant. But it happened nonetheless.

First, you smell the sulfur.

First, you smell the sulfur. You feel warm concrete on your fingertips. It creeps to your elbow. For a moment, you think about proximodistal development, whether this would be a good counter-example. Then, you remember what happened.

You get fleeting images only. Clocking-out at work. Orange clouds over grey buildings. Horns. Concrete— you remember thinking it looked comfortable, as if you could sleep there. Flying cars. Fire. Shockwaves. Black. You open your eyes.

Your eyes focus on the gravel first. Inches from your face, you see more detail than you ever thought possible. Intricacies fade as your gaze sprints forward. You see smoke sweeping through the parking lot. The sky is black, leering over burning storefronts. No stars. No streetlights. Horns sprout from the ground.

You process colors first. The head: black, seemingly caked in soot, ash. The body: red, blood stains. You try to focus on details, but they keep shifting like a taillight behind a rainy windshield. It looks at you, moves forward. You get to your feet.

You realize you aren’t hurt. You reflect briefly, but cannot figure it out. The creature smiles at you. You feel your arms rise, your mouth open. You hear a thunderous scream— sounds from other worlds. Your story is over. You’re a passenger in a gondola.

She Thought It Was a Good Day

Emma woke up around noon. She opened her eyes, saw her bedpost. Must have fallen off the bed while she slept. A cluster of dust bunnies huddled on the right side of the post.

She imagined them planning their next attack on her throw rug. Standing around a little map of her bedroom, the general seated in a little throne made from a gum wrapper. They would attack from the north and east, cornering her beloved rug between the dresser and the bed. It would have no chance against their fire arrows and cannons. The epic battle would last four days, the throw rug about to surrender and begin composing a treaty to the dust bunny general—

Emma realized she had fallen back asleep and forced herself up. It was now a quarter to one. She untangled herself from her comforter, a butterfly about to emerge.

She blinked four times. Quick. Quick. Slow. Quick.

The room was well lit by the sun. She avoided tripping over her piles of Hemingway and Faulkner, but kicked Melville all over the floor. She chuckled at her own symbolism.

Emma dragged her feet to the kitchen and poured water into her old teapot. It reflected the sun’s light into her eyes.

“Damn it!”

The teapot’s impact echoed from the sink. She picked it up and slammed it onto the stove. She grabbed a mug, debated which tea to drink. English Breakfast seemed the most logical. It also made her feel regal.

After drinking her tea, Emma got ready for the day. It was almost four.

Her phone’s blue light shined through her living room. It was a message from her friend, Erica, who wanted to go on a walk. Emma looked at the pile of reading she had to do that weekend and decided to go on the walk.

They met at the park at the edge of their neighborhood. When they were kids, they would play there after school— tag around the slide, backflips off the swing set, castles in the sandbox. The slide was taken away when they got into middle school, the swings in high school. Oddly, they left the swing set’s frame, only removing the swings. So, a rusty lower-case N stood in a mixture of gravel and bark, victorious in its war with time.

Emma stood by the frame, ran her fingers over the rust. The blue paint that mirrored the summer sky was still clinging to parts of it. Some was eaten by rust. Her pinky finger moved from the rust onto the paint, but it flaked and fell to the ground. She stared at the lonely flake as it lied on the cold gravel.

By the time Erica arrived, Emma had lied down by the flake and began staring at the sky through the gaps in the trees.

Erica approached hesitantly. “Emma?”

“Yes?”

“You doin’ ok?”

Emma shook her head, “Yeah. Yes. I’m fine. Yes.” She picked herself up and brushed off her arms and legs. “How are you?”

“I’m good, not laying in gravel, the usual.”

“Hah hah. So clever.” Clouds of dirt and bark glowed in the evening sun. “Do you have anywhere in mind?”

“I was thinking about going through the woods to the pond.”

Emma agreed, and they headed off, talking about what they had done over the summer, the people from high school they hated, and their confusion over Pierce College’s registration process.

The conversation was fairly one-sided. Erica dominated, choosing which tangents the conversation should go on, like a park ranger leading a hike on a trail with many forks.

Emma didn’t mind. She understood that Erica exaggerated her views a lot. It seemed like Erica found some comfort in portraying a caricature instead of her real self around other people, like how a sunny winter day looks warm, feels cold.

They arrived at the pond around five-thirty. A mallard couple swam by the dock they stood on. The sun danced on their ripples. Emma assumed they were on a date.

Erica stared at the mallards. “Remember when we came here after Josh broke his arm in 7th grade?”

“Of course.”

“I remember seeing him in gym. We were playing dodgeball, and he was the last one left on his team and he took a huge drive to avoid one of those red, smelly balls, and he hit the floor, and there was this empty thud, followed by him yelling, ‘Fuck!’ and the teachers debated over scolding him before they realized he needed help, and…”

Emma had heard this story a hundred times. It happened every time they came to the pond or Erica thought about something bigger than herself.

“… We all came here after school, and we started trying to figure out what had really happened…”

“Yeah, and Dina wouldn’t shut up about all the blood.”

“I know! There wasn’t even that much of it either!” Erica laughed at the memory. Emma smirked.

The two sat on the edge of the dock with their feet in the pond, kicking cool water into the warm air.

Emma focused on trying to create a momentary rainbow while Erica recalled other stories about Josh, Dina, and other people from their childhood. She considered it a good use of her time.