Always Empty

Each section is based on the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the day from September, 2022.

I. ghost hunt, n.

There’s just something missing
on the battlefield.
The thrill of the kill is there,
the electricity of bloodlust,
but iron helmets, visors
hide their eyes.

I want to watch the waves
calm within their irises.

II. beeline, v.

In the old days,
I’d strike from a shadow,
dagger to throat.

I could feel
the tremble of their larynx
on the blade’s edge
with my fingertips.

III. tots, n.

There’s a big celebration at camp
after our victory in battle.

My steps through blood-soaked dirt
become steps through drunken soil,
potatoes float in puddles of wine and ale.

They toast me as I pass,
slurred cheers of “Captain!”
I feel so empty.

IV. fabulism, n.

There was a future in my head
when I started down this road.

It did not include power, status;
it included revenge.

V. leading light, n.

A singular ember
in my chest —
A dense anger.

A vision of their bodies,
rivulets of blood
over the edge of our bed.

VI. endarkenment, n.

Their corpses felt me
empty.

The rush of the kill
from a just vengeance, 
did not fill the void.

I left town, got a job
doing the only thing
that made me feel alive.

VII. amazake, n.

A soldier hands me a chalice
of some drink or other
as I enter the captain’s tent.

A strategist from the capitol
holds up a communication scroll
bearing the king’s face.

He congratulates me on the victory,
rambles about honor and other shit
he knows I don’t care about.

VIII. Monogyne, n.

When you hold someone’s light
in the palms of your hands,
get to choose when and how
you clench your fist, see it rise
like steam between your knuckles— that
is power. That is the feeling
of control, of being alive.

IX. altaltissimo, n.

Does this dude ever
take his crown off?

When I bound my fate to his,
I didn’t anticipate
having to listen to his
incessant blathering
after every victory.

It’s not even for me—
it’s for the nobles who believe
his brother suffered a fatal heart attack.

X. anjeer, n.

I look at the palm of my glove
while King NeverShutsUp tangents
to lofty goals for the next year.

It’s stained with dried blood— mine
and others, probably— I don’t remember
when they were washed last.

It looks like a noble’s robe would
after a festival, covered with remnants
of spilled wine, fallen fruit— trophies.

XI. rachmanism, n.

The strategist drops the scroll
when he applauds for the king
as he talks about defending
the freedoms of his subjects.

This behavior is beyond me.
‘Freedom’ and ‘subjects’
don’t seem like complimentary terms,
but I don’t collect tax revenue,

so what do I know.

XII. sibsomeness, n.

Sometimes, I fear
what will happen to me
if the king has his way—
peace comes to the kingdom
and he no longer needs me
or my protection.

XIII. nash-gab, n.

The king asks questions about the battle
after the comm scroll with his head
has been properly restored.

My answers are short,
my nods curt.

I wonder what it would be like 
if he didn’t fear me
or he actually cared about the details.

XIV. deliverology, n.

I met the King
when he was a prince
in a tavern on the outskirts
of his territory. Peasant clothes
to hide his nobility or feign camaraderie,
a pint in his hand. 

He slurred through ways
the kingdom could be better
under his name. Cheers and ale
bounced off the walls with his exclamations.

I asked what he was willing to pay.

XV. xennial, n. and adj.

In the predawn dark, he was torn
between the traditions of his older brother
and the ideals of the youth in his bones.

But he saw it, for a moment,
in the flickering candlelight: the crown
on his head, the power in his voice.

He offered piles of gold, a legal pardon;
the future boredom was palpable.
He stammered, sweat on his temples.

I asked for a seat on his council,
command of his army. He thought me
a mindless killer. We shook hands.

XVI. psionic, adj.

He never asked me how
I got rid of the king.

People don’t like hearing the details
of shadow magic, especially, I assume

when your power would be questioned
if anyone ever found out.

I use it on the battlefield still:
pits that swallow squadrons;

shadows that consume brains,
flood the whites of their eyes.

After our first victory, he asked me
how it was done. I told him, “Like before.”

XVII. segotia, n.

The king closes his address
by inviting us for a feast at his castle.
The strategist accepts the invitation
for both of us: a knee jerk reaction.

The king’s face fades
into the off-white of the scroll.
He looked excited to see the people
he considers his friends.

XVIII. bird dog, n.

The road back to the city is long.
Soldiers practically skip in anticipation
for a warm welcome home,
feasts with their families.

I keep seeing faces in tree bark—
faces I’ve seen before,
ones I haphazardly sent into shadows
before the king found me.

XIX. requiescat, n.

Part of me remembers my wife—
the way she’d knead sourdough
with the heel of her hand, singing
a melody in the morning light.
I miss her then, want her soul to feel
peace.

But then, I see her fingers entangled
in the hair of someone else: the alchemist
with smooth hands; a thick, braided beard.
I see their slit throats, their blood pooling
on a bed I could never return to, and I wish her soul
pain.

XX. parapublic, adj.

The king’s army is made
of young men who break rank
as we travel through a village
outside the city walls.

Rundown buildings,
families in tattered clothes,
who anticipate their return,
who worry about and love them.

XXI. adyt, n.

I don’t stop them from running
to the open arms of their families.

I don’t force them to walk
through the city to the castle.

I don’t subject them to the king’s
lengthy speeches, empty accolades.

I don’t pressure them to eat
mediocre roast in the king’s dining hall.

That’s a job for me.

XXII. binge-watching, n.

Does this guy ever shut up?
It’s astounding
he’s capable of eating any food
while moving from story to story.
Is anyone even listening?

XXIII. sharenting, n.

I look between family portraits
which line the walls
of the dining hall.

So many stoic children
forced to stand at attention
in perpetuity.

Would it be so bad
if someone pruned
this tree?

XXIV. garbler, n.

A tendril of shadow
coils around my boot,
slithers over dried blood.

I left a sham marriage
just to enter into
the cage of power. 

Misery and emptiness
follow me like anchors
slogging through loose sand.

The shadow is hungry. I
am hungry. My fingers
twitch, nails ready

to dig into flesh.

XXV. nosey, v.

Pay attention to the small actions:
the way he flicks his wrist,
talks with both arms,
saunters across the hall.

There’s information hidden there
that’ll help identify his weak spots,
expose patterns he never talks about.
That’s what I need to kill him.

XXVI. stepford, adj.

The castle guard wear similar armor—
shiny, the king’s sigil on the breast
strong, but inflexible, slow.

They go through rigorous training,
all of them, mastering the same techniques,
exposing the same weak spots.

XXVII. pretenture, n.

Humans build to keep out enemies,
but shadows flow over them with ease.
Yet another example of overconfidence,
misunderstanding of our world’s nature.

I slip along the lines of mortar between
the castle’s stone, let threads of void
ensnare the guards, flood their eyes
with visions of tortured, mangled bodies.

XXVIII. melpomenish, adj.

The king’s chamber is filled with
garish trinkets—  objects to look at,
no utility.

Under thick quilts with intricate designs,
his snores mix with the fireplace’s crackling.
No challenge.

I envelope the flame in a shadowy blanket,
knock a goblet off the mantlepiece
for the drama.

His shoulders shift, a bleary investigation.
His face when his eyes fell on me—
exquisite.

XXIX. anonymuncule, n.

He begs, pleads for his life,
offers riches, titles, land.

He says they’ll find me out, whisper
my name in every corner of the kingdom.

Even in death, he
just never shuts up.

I grip his heart in a shadowy fist,
feel its rhythmic tremors.

I squeeze until it finally stops,
until he’s finally silent,

until the waves in his irises
become stagnant pools.

XXX. leso, n.

I rearrange his body and his blankets
to look like his heart failed in his sleep.

Intricate patterns, expensive dyes, his quilt
reminds me of the dresses my wife wore

back when she was alive. And, like that,
a void settles in my chest again.

Always empty. All is fleeting.
I exit under the cover of the dark moon.

A Gap Where You Used to Be

Each section is based on the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the day from August, 2022.

I. dining room, n.

Long, rectangular table.
Six chairs, all taken
but one—
yours.

II. administrivia, n.

I know you know
what you’re doing, and
you know I know
you’re capable of caring of yourself, but
you also know
I worry.

III. hanbok, n.

I remember when
they announced your name—
you walked across the stage,
they gave you a case for your diploma,
you shook your principal’s hand.
I was so proud of you.

IV. railipotent, adj.

So, why don’t you talk to me anymore?
Was I so bad to you?
Raising you the way I did?
You’re grown up at college now
and don’t need your mother?

V. belukar, n.

I guess—
I just thought—
I know we didn’t talk much
for a while,
but after moving out,
maybe you’d reach out more.

VI. clear-cut, n.

There was something in your eyes
when we said goodbye to you
after helping you move into your dorm.
I hoped I was imagining it,
but the truth lies
in your silence.

VII. pinguinitescent, adj.

Do you remember
the soccer season banquet
when you were seven?

You ate too much pizza,
deciding you were old enough
to fill your own plate
at the buffet.

The picture of you, your pizza-covered face,
your coach and trophy, hangs
in the living room by the window.

VIII. poddle, v.

On Sundays, we all
walk to the park by the lake,
with a gap

where you used to be.

IX. chiptune, n.

We used to play
the Legend of Zelda —
well, you’d play it,
I’d listen to you tell me about it —
after you finished your homework.

We were
so much closer
then.

X. dogfood, v.

I’ve tried reaching out
to you
several times,
but deleted the message
each time.

Practicing each sentence
with possible tones
you may put on them.

There are too many variables,
and I don’t want to be a burden.

XI. reginal, adj.

I work all day,
care for your siblings.
I’ve always done
my best.
I deserve more respect
than this.

XII. muso, n.

I drink my morning coffee
across the living room
from your piano.

I miss the songs you’d play
as I got home from work,
your smile.

XIII. chipperness, n.

I put on a smile
when Janet sees me
examining coffee creamer
at Safeway.

She asks how you’re doing
at Western.

I tell her some vague stories,
based on movies I’ve seen,
and how proud I am of you,
based on reality.

XIV. abacist, n.

Maybe you’re just busy
with your classes, new friends.

Maybe you need to stand on your own
and don’t want your mom holding you down.

Maybe I didn’t react the right way
when you came out to me.

XV. maleficate, v.

You used to come to me
for advice,
until you started hanging out with
that boy.

All of a sudden, I was
always wrong
and you started building a wall
between us.

XVI. fáinne, n.

I just don’t get it.

I donated to that Trevor Project
you always post about.
I got one of those
rainbow borders for my profile picture.

I don’t know
what else you want.

XVII. simpulum, n.

I lit a candle
for you
under the stained-glass window 
at church
so that God could hear me
and steer you back
to me.

XVIII. buddha dharma, n.

Some may say
I should act with compassion,
give you time; 
you will reach out
when you’re ready.

They don’t know
the pain
gnawing at my ribs.

XIX. passionable, adj.

I’m an emotional person.
You know that.

Yes, I cried
when you told me.
Yes, I realize
that upset you.

But, it felt like
the futures for you in my head
died, turned to ash
like those snake fireworks.

It took me time to understand,
but I still love you.

XX. ecopoiesis, n.

So, I may have told Janet
you have a girlfriend.

I didn’t quite realize it, but really,
it’s easier this way—
you know how she talks
with the other church ladies.

I just don’t think
they’d be able to handle the idea 
one of the boys they taught catechism to
is gay.

You would understand,
wouldn’t you?

XXI. rhyparography, n.

I was cleaning your room — I swear —
and I came across an old shoebox
with that boy’s name on it.
I’m sorry, I looked;
I couldn’t help it.
It was full of notes he wrote to you.
I didn’t even know
kids still passed paper notes.
Such beautiful handwriting of
such filthy language.

XXII. ankimo, n.

Yesterday was your birthday,
we had your favorite dinner in your honor,
and Western emailed me that tomorrow
is Family Weekend.

The signs were all there:
I have to drive up to see you.

XXIII. muskoka chair, n.

Your father won’t come with me.

He says he can’t get time off
from the hospital
and also that me going is a bad idea.

He was repotting the monstera
he allowed to take over
that chair from his garden.

He just doesn’t get it.

XXIV. mamaguy, v.

As I back out of the driveway,
go through the labyrinth
of our neighborhood,
I brainstorm
what to say to you when I get there.

A joke, maybe, a nickname
from your childhood,
when we were close.
Maybe that’ll bridge the gap,
since I didn’t call you beforehand.

XXV. amakhosi, n.

North on 167, I drive by
the huge hill in Auburn 
we used to live on,
the arena they built
over the field your track meets were on,
the bowling alley
we had your birthday parties at.

XXVI. coboss, int.

405 is jammed,
more than usual.
Probably
other families
going to Western to see
their kids 
who actually tell them 
what’s going on in their lives.

XXVII. dark side, n.

The signs were always there, I guess,
like the absence of birds before a storm.

Your first grade teacher called one day,
saying you were hugging another boy
and smelling his hair.

I talked to you about it,
thinking it was a personal-bubble
misunderstanding.

I should have
paid better attention
to what they told you in school.

Why would you do this
to me?

XXVIII. curatorium, n.

Anger froths
like baking soda and vinegar.

It was probably
those grooming teachers
poisoning your mind.

That boy
or your friends
tearing you away from me.

Those shady social networks
with their algorithms 
twisting the knife.

Why else would you end up this way?
Why else would you stop talking to me?

XXIX. birdikin, n.

You were
so precious
when you were younger,
so fragile—
when you were my child.

What happened? What
went wrong? What could
I have done differently?

XXX. wabi-sabi, adj. and n.

You are still my son.
You are worth my time.
You are worth
saving.

A line of dominoes
tumbles up my spine.
I pull over to the shoulder,
put the car in park.

Why do I see you as
imperfect?
When did I come to that
conclusion?

XXXI. scooptram, n.

You don’t want to see me.
I can’t blame you, because
I never really saw you.

On the edge of Mount Vernon,
I watch cars
cross the Skagit River bridge,
the one that collapsed
when you were young.

They drive by
unflinching,
leave me behind.

A Note Should Suffice

There’s a tower out on the horizon.

You’ve lived in this forest a long time. So long, in fact, that you’ve started to name the trees— not the species names, like spruce, cedar, hemlock; those you learned on your grandpa’s nature walks years ago— names like Rela, Sophia, Brett.

The black face of the tower is stark in contrast to the orange-green hue of the treetops across the valley in the morning light. Its top half is coiled like a serpent around a shaman’s forearm, coming to three sharp points a hundred feet above the western red cedars at the base of the mountain.

The tower wasn’t there yesterday. You’re almost certain. You don’t remember a tower living there— isn’t that where Storm River started? At the base of Thunder Falls? The face of the glacier still sunbathes on the mountain. It must still drift there. You don’t remember the last time you really paid attention to that area. You don’t remember the names of those trees, if the trees are still there.

You strain your eyes, grasping at the finer details just out of reach. Soft, faint, purple cyphers flow along the tower’s coils, glowing in a slow pulse that climbs up the snake’s spine.

The colors of the treetops by the tower are washed out. The leaves and pine needles pale, white as day-old coals. The bark’s black as night. No life there, no movement. You could almost feel the absence of the grubs that crawled within the folds of the bark.

It’s cold, as mornings here tend to be. The sun, contrary to what city people say, is not a morning person; it takes its time stumbling over the mountain. You’re halfway through your earl grey, meaning you’re toward the end of the hour between dawn and when the sun is actually visible.

Your porch is quiet in a loud way. The quiet has a presence, and it demands to be known. One morning, about a week ago, a crow landed on a maple branch on the northeast corner of your front yard. It cawed, then froze and, you swear, lowered its head apologetically before flying away.

You finish your tea, then pack several days of supplies in your backpack. Your partner is still asleep. Not wanting to wake them, you leave a note on the counter saying what you’re doing, where you’re going, when to worry.

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.

I Wanted to Write Something You’d Like

You always told me how much you liked the way I describe things, so I’m going to try to do that now. 

I had just got home from work. I parked my Focus in the driveway. The early-December frost was still lazily slumped in the corners of the curb. The clouds had layers, many wispy strands floating together attempting to make a uniform grey sheet. The air was cold and thin, much as it always was on the top of the hill we lived on. 

We called it a hill, anyway. Ryan and Laura had called it a mountain when they first moved here, remember? They were really confused when we laughed, and then we got into a senseless argument about the differences between the definitions of “hill” and “mountain.” Far too academic for such a stupid thing. 

Right, so, I had left the car, situating my your-beanie on my head. Thank you, again, for finding it in a shoebox in the back of the closet when I had lost mine, and subsequently not wanting it back. The car’s warmth that had soaked into me and my clothing dissipated far too quickly; I hate thermodynamics. 

I went to get the mail, the chore I always do before going inside the house. The sidewalk, somehow, still had a layer of frozen dew. The border of the frost followed the shadows of the Diaz’s house and Tyrell Jackson’s pick-up. There was a soft, faint crunch when I stepped. Not a full-on-snow crunch, but there was an attempt, like Simba trying to impress Mufasa with his roar.

The mailboxes recently got changed from the individual sub-sandwich-shaped boxes nailed to several two-by-fours to the factory-farm-chicken-cage letter prisons on metal poles. Our box was number 7, even though our house number was 23561. I don’t understand why they couldn’t consolidate the numbers to be the same— I’ve talked your ear off about this thing before. Too much, in fact. I’ll move on. 

There was nothing there. Well, there were ads for Safeway and Albertson’s, but those don’t really constitute mail; anything that lands in the recycle bin instead of on the dining room table doesn’t count as mail.

The apple tree in the corner of the Tanaka’s yard by the mailboxes was bare. Its branches were thin and weak in the breeze. A plump robin perched on one of the lower branches, making it and its relatives bob up and down under its weight. It must frequent their bird feeder. The robin’s head twitched left and right, seemingly unperturbed by the cold. Perhaps by instinct, perhaps realizing how alone it was, the robin took off and flew down the block. 

Our mailbox, if you remember, was around the corner on 22nd Street. The view on the way back, where 22nd meets 162nd, faced west. When the sky was clear, we could see the Olympic mountains. Today, the wispy clouds bunched up high enough that the silhouette of the mountains from the setting sun was crisp. A deep-orange fire burning behind the glaciers and rock reached up to meet the blue-black of the evening sky. 

The colors blended, or met, or touched— I don’t know, but there was a line in the sky between them. It felt like there should be a word for it. Or, maybe I thought I was supposed to see some undiscovered color that would give me some transcendental realization. But there wasn’t a word that could placate me, no epiphanies. 

I didn’t turn on 162nd back to the house that day. I kept walking west down 22nd, taking deep breaths of icy air, seeing how long I could exhale steam. The steam coned out from the pinpoint precision of my mouth to the broad shotgun array a few feet away, before losing all sense of rhythm and deforming into clusters of chaotic clouds. 

At the end of 22nd, where the housing development started to turn back on itself, there was a clearing on the northern corner— something about how if the number of houses exceeds x, then the developer needs to build and maintain a small park, so the lot was left empty. The wild grass still had white tips, completely untouched until my footsteps broke their peace.

I could see the abandoned golf course from the lot. Well, the edge of it, around the tree line— you know. We drove by it whenever we went to the highway, and we had walked around the lonely concrete trails that lead from hole to hole. There were three parked cars on the shoulder of the spur that lead to its parking lot. The company that bought the land barricaded it years ago, but never did anything else with their purchase. 

I had always meant to draw up a map of the golf course and blow out the proportions to become the world for a story I had thought of. When we had gone on our first walk around it, I had started piecing together the cities. There was a railroad track along the eastern side that would transport goods throughout the towns along the foothills of the impassable mountain range. There were rolling hills and vast lakes and small, dry patches of desert; ocean would hug the western coast.

The story was supposed to revolve around a woman making a dessert for some special occasion, how stressed she felt while making it. Maybe stress isn’t the right word; she would be excited to make the thing and for people to eat it, but she wanted it to be perfect. She’d walk around the floating flour specs of her kitchen and pour precise measurements of sugar into different measuring cups, some complicated fractions would stick out from the recipe that would need to be broken down and converted.

With every ingredient she’d add, there would be a cut away to another person who would be moving through their daily routine to gather, package, distribute, or sell the ingredient the woman just used. Their lives would be rough and stressful and tiresome. Then, it would jump back to the woman and her dessert.

I never wrote that story. I had thought about it, as I said, but I never wrote it. I knew that if I did write it, I’d show you, and you’d probably tell me it was weird. So, I’d save it on an external drive somewhere and always mean to come back to it and fix it, but be too afraid to read it again. Its 0s and 1s would sit on that disk undisturbed until the end of time.

Maybe I should have written it. Maybe you would have liked it. I don’t know.

The orange was dimming around the peaks of the Brothers and Mount Constance. The bones in my fingers were starting to ache. It’s weird how the cold pierces so deeply so suddenly. Small icy flakes shifted horizontally in the air carried by the soft northerly wind. I started to walk back to our house.

Your hatchback was in the driveway. I had forgotten. It had sat there for several months, and I had seen it there every day, but I had momentarily forgotten that you were gone. 

This realization happens too often, I admit, but your death just hasn’t dug its roots deep enough. I’m afraid they never will, that I will keep forgetting and having to remember all over, and the gale of grief will consume me again.

I cried that day. I curled up in the front yard and hugged my knees into my trembling chest. The grass was cold and wet, slowly changing colors in the faint glow of the Morozov’s Christmas lights.

A Morning in Kroa

The sun rises over the Haurathon, the centerpiece of Kroa. Its spire shoots out 1000 feet above the neighboring buildings. The Haurathon is used as the symbol for Congress, who use it to decorate their lapel pins, our flag, our money. You are to never forget about the Haurathon or Congress— they own you.

Sunrises are my favorite part of the day. The way the sun peeks at Kroa, like it’s wincing, makes me feel seen. It looks at me directly, tinted in the haze of the green fog dissipating from the streets. I think the beauty may be in the way Congress’ night poison rises with the sun, like a final battle cry to the heavens.

“Aja. It’s time to wake up,” I say to my sister. She’s sleeping on the couch, as she does almost every night. Her feet stick out of a mound of blankets covering the couch cushions. 

White stitches stretch out where we sit every night. Our family has had that couch since both our parents were alive; I guess that would be at least eight years or so. The dark green upholstery, the color I remember old fir trees having, has faded a lot since then, too.

Aja rolls around under the blankets, making tired groans. She says half words and flails her arms. Usually, it’s around this time that I pick up one of the blanket edges to help her out. This morning, I do not.

There’s a picture on the mantle
in a simple black frame
with four people in it.

One was
a woman with a black ponytail
and wrinkles around her smile
and small, green eyes that asked you how your day was,
          and was Mom.

Another was
a man with a thick beard
and a lumberjack’s flannel shirt
and thick arms that would hold you up to see over the crowd,
          and was Dad.

The smallest was
a girl with brown eyes
and small hands that held an old 3DS
          and was Aja.

The last one was
a girl with dyed purple hair
and a shirt from a cyborg-punk band no one listens to anymore,
          and was me.

The corners are chipped and faded.
Dust layers tint the grass’ green hue.

I sit cross-legged on the coffee table, facing the window, the couch on my right. The Haurathon dominating the view. I can feel steam from my coffee graze against my chin out of the mug I made Mom back in school. It’s wide, the sides thick and lopsided. The purple paint starting to peel around the edges. Coffee stains line the rim on the inside, no matter how much I scrub it.

“Boa, any help would be appreciated,” Aja grumbles.

“You’re 14. You can figure it out.”

“Not when the blankets travel between dimensions!” Two mountains erupt under the blankets.

“There are only three dimensions, dummy.”

“No lines think there are squares, Boa.”

I pause, sip my coffee, bask in the bitter grip in the back of my throat. “Still dumb.”

“Boa! Please! I’m dying!”

“No you aren’t.”

“I can feel Death’s cold hand on my neck. He’s dragging me into the abyss! Boa! Take care of Cat for me! Noooo!!!” Her plea fades.

“Super dumb. Cat doesn’t even need us.”

“Fine.” Aja sits up, blankets cocooned around her.

Cat sits in front of the window, staring at us. She gives me a disappointed meow, stretches her forelegs, saunters off, her chin up. 

“Cat hates you,” I say, taking another sip. The sun starts to give definition to the clouds. I can see shapes forming, green and white clusters.

“Cat loves me,” the blanket pupa replies. “She could not live without seeing my beautiful  face.” The blankets peel away, and Aja emerges. Her short, black hair sticks out in all directions. She reaches her thin arm out of the oversized shirt she wears to bed and grabs my mug. She takes a sip and recoils harshly. “Nope. No. Still no. Never. How!? Why!?”

She quickly puts the mug back in my hands. “Get up. You’re going to be late for class.”

She lets out a long, exasperated sigh. “But I’m sick!” she counters, giving two well-paced coughs into a blanket. “I think I should just stay home and rest,” she continues, putting one of the blankets back over her head.

“You literally said the same thing two days ago.”

She pauses. “But the blankets are warm, and comfy, and I named this one Gerard.” She pulls out a quilt Mom made. It has red and white squares alternating in rows.

“No you didn’t. I named them Margaret before you were even born.”

“You were three!”

“Shut up. Go get dressed.”

She gets up, walks away slowly, leaving a trail of blankets in her wake. “I’m doing this under protest.”

“You know not to tell those jokes. They’ll hear you.”

“Whatever you say, Boa. I don’t think Congress has enough interest to keep track of what every apartment is saying all the time.”

I look at my coffee; it’s almost gone. I feel a chill growing in my fingers. “That’s what everyone said when the night poison started.” 

My eyes are fixed on the bottom of the mug.

Sunset.
Orange cirrus clouds
          streaked the mauve sky.
Tiny stars awaken,
dance above the rooftops.

You joked
about curfew,
and I laughed.
          I laughed.
                    I laughed.

Night.
Green stratus clouds
blanketed the roads.

Echoes
of doors and windows locking shut
bounce off the walls and sidewalks and stoops,
and I got inside.
          I got inside.
                    You didn’t.

“I know, I know, I know. Roads dangerous after dark. Stay inside, Aja. You don’t need to remind me again. This isn’t The Hunger Games.” Aja’s annoyed voice and the sounds of brushes falling on the counter fly out of the bathroom, the door wide open. The light seems brighter than usual. I look away.

“I’m sor—”

“You don’t need to do your passive-aggressive apologizing, Boa.”

The roar of her hair dryer punctuates the conversation.

I look at the dregs of my coffee. Stains like layers of earth spiral to the bottom. Droplets stuck in place like fossils. I tilt the mug, watch them collapse, fall into a puddle at the bottom. Persistent coffee grounds swim around.

I hear Aja walk out of the bathroom, the light out. Her bedroom door creaks and clacks shut. 

She never understands. No one ever does. I’ve been told a thousand times that it wasn’t my fault. I’ve heard it from hundreds of faces; none of them have helped. My guilt is cold coffee I can’t swallow.

I was turning six,
and she baked a chocolate cake,
even with her two-year-old crying the whole time.

I remember the chocolate frosting and them smiling at me.
They sang to me.

The cake was delicious.

“When do you get off tonight?” Aja asks. Her black boots announce her approach.

“I’m opening, so I should be off around four.” I get off the coffee table and walk to the kitchen to wash the mug.

“Great, so you’ll cook dinner. Awesome. Thanks!” Aja quickly grabs her backpack and moves toward the door.

“That would only be the case if you somehow clean the apartment before I got here.”

“Bring home some fries, and it’s a deal.” Aja sticks her hand out to shake. She smiles confidently.

“Deal,” I shake her hand. “Go learn things.”

“I always does. I learn real good.” Aja grabs her keyring from the basket by the door. She uses Dad’s old Super Mario keyring. It’s faded, the colors starting to become a uniform red.

“I swear, Aja. Another F and I’m calling Skynet,“ I say, pointing a soapy scrub brush at her. 

“They’ll never find me. I’ll go off the grid. I’ll live off the land with my trusty bow, relying solely on my archery skills and stealth to stalk my prey.”

This isn’t the Hunger Games, Boa.”

“Shut up. Bye.” She smiles, turns to the door. Her red coat swishing behind her.

It doesn’t take long for me to give up on scrubbing the stains out of the mug. I place it on the drying mat next to the sink and get ready for work.

It never takes much time. The beauty of working in the kitchen of a restaurant is that you don’t have to doll yourself up for the public if you don’t want to. Management likes it when you do, as they can force you to do more jobs that way, but it’s not a strict rule.

I put on some worn-in jeans and a red shirt with the restaurant’s logo on the left breast, “Rodwell’s” in some modernist font inside a neat, blue rectangle. It’s starting to fade, but they change designs every two years, so I think I’ll be fine.

I check the mirror before I leave. I try to make my hair go in one direction with a brush. It’s futile, so I put on a black beanie. Hat hair seems like a good enough excuse.

At Four in the Morning

The room is filled with the dark of night. Red bricks of light that connect into the shapes of “4:30” are the only light. The numerals imprint on my eyelids.

I roll over onto my back and stare at the ceiling. It hangs like a Monet piece if he had met Yves Klein. The ceiling always fades away eventually. Not into the black of sleep, but into a blur as I start to see through it. I move through an eggshell fog and wooden frame and see clouds. But I’m still in the bed, it is still dark, and I still cannot sleep. 

I roll over more, on my right side this time. I see the open doorway to the master bathroom, its edges hidden in shadow. In horror movies, the doorframes have straight, clear lines. The monster is in there, yeah, but there is a line of division that it cannot pass. Not here. Not really. The doorframe was slowly being eaten away by the monster. It was winning battle after battle, spreading its rule. How long would it take for it to get to me? It’s 4:35 am. 

I give up on sleep. I convince myself it’s the logical choice, but, if I’m being honest, it’s a purely emotional response. I slip on some old shoes that I don’t need to tie and walk out of the apartment to my car. I need to move. I need to go somewhere. I need to drive. 

       

When I was in high school, I’d walk down Forgoen Avenue at four in the morning when I couldn’t sleep. It was something you could do when the town’s population was fewer than 2000 and the closest house was another farm a half mile away. 

My parents’ house was a blue, one-story rancher that sat on a plot with a small apple orchard in the back acre. A small barbed-wire fence drew its perimeter. Their apples didn’t go much further than the small family-owned grocery stores in Oatsdale, about two miles north on I-85, or Brenton, three miles east on Highway 234. 

At four in the morning, when I wasn’t able to sleep, I grabbed my shoes and my house keys and headed west on Forgoen toward the Hilltop Mart. The house keys were a formality I learned from various shows we’d watch on NBC; my parents never really locked the doors to the house.

No one was on the road at four in the morning, and, because of the lack of local funds in Karnapa, no streetlights punctuating the road. The lack of light pollution let the moon and stars pick up the slack, though, so not all was lost. The lay of the road was so flat and so straight, that you could tell the exact molecule the horizon sat on. It was like the first drawing they make you do in art in elementary school; the one where they try to tell you about perspective and you just draw lines from the bottom corners to the center. That’s literally what Forgoen looked like, even with the few hastily-drawn trees sprinkled in after the teacher said you didn’t put in enough detail.

There was a space after the Herston’s land, the farm a half mile away, and before the Hilltop Mart where the transmission towers stood, giving a lane for the power lines to travel to us from Karnapa proper to the north, the central part of town with the library and the city hall and the paper mill. There was a light popping under the power lines that you could only hear at four in the morning, because the rest of the day had too much sound for you to observe it. I’d stop for a minute on my walk and listen to it. I’d look at the stars and imagine every pop being the birth or death of a star, somewhere out there hidden by their boisterous friends. 

The Hilltop Mart was maybe a mile and a half one-way. It was an odd name, since it wasn’t on the top of a hill. It was on a hill, sure, but it was in the middle of a hill at best. It’s possible the hill of trees and Methodist chapels weren’t there when the Hilltop Mart was built, but that seemed unlikely; the trees were tall and the chapels didn’t have plumbing. It was open 24 hours a day because of the slim minority of me showing up at odd hours in the night, but mostly because of the two gas pumps outside of it and the state law that said an attendant had to pump your gas for you. 

The aisles were empty, like the road the store sat on, but the shelves were full. Three aisles were devoted exclusively to American beer. Budweiser had cases stacked on cases in the aisle with a neon sign of the logo above, the fluorescent lights drab in comparison. I gravitated toward the snack aisles during my morning walks: plump bags of chips bursting from the shelves, candy bars laid in an orderly fashion in their little cardboard houses. 

The nights in summer got down to the mid-60s. I grabbed a glass bottle of Snapple from the refrigerated section on the south wall, just before the refrigerated beers, and a Milky Way. I brought them to the counter where the clerk, Gill, stood. Gill was a middle-aged man with straight, shoulder-length, black hair pulled back into a ponytail. He wore a flannel shirt tucked into denim pants, his belt buckle changing every couple months. On this day, his belt buckle had a picture of a cowboy riding a horse, lasso raised in the air. Gill usually went with old Hank Williams songs when he was in charge of the store’s radio. The only thing he was missing was 10-gallon hat, I realized as an adult, but that never occurred to me then; that was just what Gill was like.

I gently eased the Snapple bottle onto the counter to make less noise and followed it with the Milky Way bar. A sad twang of steel guitar filling the store. “Hey Gill.”

He looked up from yesterday’s crossword. “Hey Pete.” His voice had a low drawl to it. When he talked, you didn’t see his mouth move so much as you saw his mustache roll. 

“How’s business?”

Gill met my eyes. He raised his right hand, palm up, and gestured to the empty northern wall on his right to the empty southern wall on his left. “Booming.”

We laughed. It was the kind of joke that works at that hour in that small of a town. Gill scanned the tea and the candy bar, and I pulled out the five I had in my pocket that I earned from my summer gig as a bagger at the Safeway by the library.

The register opened with a pang, the jostling of coins ringing out of its mouth. “Eight-letter word. Person from Calgary or Edmonton.”

“Got any letters?”

“Ends with N.” He answered, placing my change on the counter and picking up his pencil. He looked at me expectantly.

“Canadian?” 

“Tried that. Doesn’t fit with nine-down. Country where David lives: Italy. It ends with T-something-N.”

I pictured a Canadian map on the neon Coors sign and split it into provinces. British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, “Albertan.”

“Ah. Right. Thanks, Pete.” Gill started scratching the letters into the squares.

I nodded. “Anytime.” I shoved the bills and coins into my pocket, picked up the Milky Way with my left hand, Snapple with my right.

The door to the store closed with the dinging of a small bell. After walking down the steps to the road, I placed the Snapple on the edge of the stoop to open the Milky Way. I tried to do it while walking once, and I lost half the tea to a ditch. I’d walk the mile and a half east back home, listening to the last bit of the transmission tower’s electric popping with the sun peeking over the Herston’s silo.

       

I get to my car, which I had to park several buildings away in the complex due to all the free spots being taken by other freeloaders. It’s a green Kia I got at a “pre-owned” dealership last fall. I went on about the weird euphemism with the dealer; how it wasn’t a good term since it was longer and more complicated than the original term, “used,” and in response, he said, “I need your signature here, here, and your initials here.”

There’s no one on the road at four in the morning, because, it turns out, sane people just aren’t up that early. It isn’t just true in rural Karnapa; it’s true in suburban Harpen too. These roads have streetlights though. The people in Harpen want to play God and make the roads live in perpetual day. No sleep for you, Lauren Drive. 

I drive south on 267th, winding through a dim forest that’s been partially emptied for a couple houses every hundred feet for lake people who can’t afford to live on Lake Rhonda, but want to live by it. Their houses blend in with the tree trunks at least, peeling paint, cedar shingles, whatnot.

I take several turns in places I don’t think about; all muscle memory. The car just drives to a place, and I am on the journey with it. The drive is about a half hour. I end up in the parking lot of Valley Middle School, where I teach. It’s 5:15 am. School starts in two hours. The first day of the year.

In Kia’s trunk is an emergency stash of clothes I am expected to wear as an adult at a school: a purple button-up with thin, dark, vertical lines; a black tie; jeans that don’t have any holes; and shoes that don’t have visible holes. I keep some deodorant, a comb, a toothbrush, and toothpaste in my desk as well; I’m not worried.

I get out of Kia and stretch my back, on my tiptoes, trying to grab the clouds. Harpen isn’t as warm as Karnapa— it’s in the low-50s— and there’s fog hovering over the fields behind the school. I rub my forearms a little, feel the goosebumps travel up them. I climb onto Kia’s hood and sit cross-legged, not resting my back on the windshield.

I watch the fog flow around the fields and lap the parking lot. I look at the building, with its red-painted, cinder-block facade slowly getting chipped away. There are dots in the places students had written something in sharpie the previous year that hasn’t been painted over yet. A tennis ball lodged in a vent above the door to the science hallway. A blue frisbee (literally and figuratively) sitting on the roof above Ms. Spencer’s history classroom. 

An hour later, the sun rises over the portables that sit between the school and the fields. The clouds are whipped-cream streaks over strawberry puree. The portables’ antennas like small spoons dipped in it, stuck there.

“Sure. Okay,” I say, taking a deep breath of fresh morning air. I get my clothes out of the trunk, and walk toward the building.