I wasn’t good at being good

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

I. carbonado, n.

Um, hello?
I hope this gets to you
at all. I know
I haven’t sent anything
in a while. I want
to explain. And yes,
I’ll get to the mark on my face.

II. finger trap, n.

I need to start at the beginning.
You must have known
I needed to leave.

Whenever I had tried running,
something tethered me —
feet in quicksand.

I didn’t know
I’d actually break away.
I didn’t know
I wouldn’t be able to get back.
I’m sorry.

III. amor, n.

I guess
it was just that—
Dad always
loved you more.

You had basketball trophies,
positive comments on your report cards.
He always said
he never had to worry about you.

I had shit; I had to earn his love.
Sometimes, I thought I had it,
but it would fade away
like the doppler effect of a siren.

That’s why
I did all this:
I had to aim so high,
he’d be forced to see me.

IV. dunning-kruger, n.

I thought I had it—
I thought I had it—
I thought I had it
under control.
I swear.

V. eustress, n.

I knew what I signed up for—
I was going to be
in the first group of people
to terraform Mars.

I had the degrees, the years
of research. My name
was announced on cable news.

I was a leader in our shuttle.
People listened to me,
asked me for guidance.
I couldn’t get enough.

VI. palustrine, adj.

It was like when we were kids,
back at the lake, catching newts
in a plastic bucket.

I always needed to catch more
than you, staying out
after the fireflies showed up.

VII. perfectibilist, n.

It was arrogant to think
we could do better than this.

It was arrogant to think
we could start over.

It was arrogant to think
there was nothing here before us.

VIII. soz, adj.

I’m sorry
all this is coming to you
in pieces.

I had to reconfigure our transmitter
with spare parts of
our landing rig.

IX. carnyx, n.

I took the controls
in our final descent,
convinced I should do it,
only I could do it.

I missed a switch,
a small mistake, enough
to damage the hull.

An alarm echoed
through the ship until
someone else 
repaired the necessary parts.

X. bambi, int. and adv.

The repairs set us back 
several hours.
When it was safe and
I was finally allowed
out of the ship,
I stood on red earth,
saw maroon mountains
meet black sky,
an overwhelming array of stars
around a blue dot
where I knew
you all were.

XI. rantipole, n.

They stopped talking to me,
stopped asking me questions.
I could see
hastily-constructed walls
flash across their faces
when they saw me in the hall.

I offered to help;
they said they had it
under control.

XII. boykie, n.

This keeps happening.
I always get in my own way.

I go too far into the water,
lose my balance in the silt.

Why were my successes
never enough?

I couldn't just pass my tests,
I had to be better than all my classmates.

I couldn't just go to Mars,
I had to lead the people who went to Mars.

XIII. yampy, adj.

Dad was right.
You are the better son.
You wouldn't have
put the lives of your crewmates in jeopardy
to serve your ego.

He never made you attend
your parent-teacher conferences.
I had to sit there
while he voiced every disappoint,
while each teacher reached for any solution.

XIV. bretheling, n.

I joined the survey team
to earn the crew's respect back.
It involved walking alone,
away from their bitter eyes.

In addition to creating a map
of the surrounding area, we were looking
for somewhere to build our base.
That's when I found the cave.

XV. ballyhoo, n.

I updated the map,
sent an alert to the leadership team.
They called me to the conference room,
where they sat around a long table,
cluttered with annotated reports and blueprints.

I stood before them, detailed the cave's location;
its approximate volume; how much time, effort,
material it would take to build a sustainable base.
I-

I emphasized
its safety.

XVI. devil’s coach-horse, n.

There were so many things we-
I didn't know:
the actual depth of the cave,
the small holes within its walls,
the boring insects who created them.

XVII. sambaza, v.

Our ship was modular,
created to be dismantled,
room by room,
once a long-term location was found.

I assisted groups of people pack, travel,
and reconfigure their rooms in the cave.
They thanked me for my help, my discovery,
made eye contact with me again.

XVIII. dreidel, n.

We had a feast
once everyone was housed in the cave,
most of the landing rig left as 
a monument in the red desert
for where our settlement began.

People laughed, ate, played games.
They were so happy.
It would be
the last time that feeling was shared.

XIX. carboy, n.

The next morning,
Hisashi, our agriculturist,
lead his team to establish
micro- and macrocrops
within and outside the cave.

He asked for my help
surveying the land, showed me
all the tubes and bottles for
his complex compost system
and his set up for brewing beer.

XX. hagwon, n.

Many people invited me to help them,
learn their roles.
I was accepted again, fully.
I was seen as a leader again.
I was learning so much.
Things were going so well.

XXI. rinky-dink, n.

So, you should
be able to see the wall behind me.
If it's not in focus, just know that
the shelves have fallen over,
the posters and pictures ripped.

You can actually see 
on this shelf panel, the holes
from the insects that live here.

It fell apart slowly. An air leak
in one of the rooms deepest in.
Patch work covered it, we moved on.
Then more leaks, more patchwork,
until Gloriana died in her sleep.

XXII. mondialization, n.

Gloriana was the lead
of the communication team.
They were constructing the transmitter
to report our progress back to Earth.

Our first report, as you well know, was
her death, no explanation or cause.

XXIII. lip-sync, v.

There was debate
about whether to share
that information right away.

There was debate
about whether to carry on
like nothing happened.

For days, we
cosplayed professionalism:
did the tasks on the docket,
said words with no real meaning.

XXIV. zilch, v.

They left no one.
There's no one
left.

I
examined Gloriana's body,
her room, to look for clues.

Day by day, there was less of her,
not natural decay, chunks bitten off
her limbs.

XXV. christmas, v.

On Earth, I think it was Christmas
when I made that realization.

I wrote a report, took some pictures,
presented my findings to the leadership team.

Two of them were absent. We assumed
they were on an assignment or

were recording messages to send
to their families for the holidays.

We were wrong.

XXVI. hanukkiah, n.

The next day, the lights went out.
Emergency flashlights under our cots
lead us through the hallways.

As we approached the power sector,
there was a whirring sound,
like an engine low on oil.

When the door opened, our flashlights
were whipped out of our hands
by a gust of wind escaping

through a large hole in the wall.
Shards of Tenzin's sweater caught on its rim,
their severed hand on the emergency shut-off lever.

XXVII. chindogu, n.

It all went fast then;
panic has a way of
exacerbating things.

We huddled together,
surrounded by machines
that were utterly useless then.

Gathered in one of the central modules,
we concentrated our food, water, spacesuits,
smuggled weapons and ad hoc ones.

XXVIII. bak kut teh, n.

Hisashi set out on his own,
knife in hand,
to find a specimen
to examine, develop a strategy
for attack.

He returned dangling a beetle
the size of a football
by its antennae.
It oozed a viscous blood,
shade of mulberry.

After some poking, prodding,
he suggested
someone should take a bite
to see if its edible
in case our food supply runs low.

I volunteered.
It all felt like my fault.
It was the least I could do.
As my teeth sank into its flesh,
the floor rumbled, erupted.

XXIX. mugwamp, n. and adj.

A swarm of them
fell like hailstones,
bounced like rubber bullets,
sank teeth and pincers
into whatever they found.

We scattered, ran for the exit,
but there stood the largest of them,
the size of a loveseat,
shrapnel lodged in its exoskeleton,
human blood in its teeth.

Hisashi and I charged with sharpened table legs,
hoping to distract it away from the doorway
while others fled to safety.
They all fell to the swarm, Hisashi fell
when a pincer stabbed his stomach.

Sharp pincers, legs scraped my face as I escaped
alone, the captain of a solo-mission.
I ran to the communications room, this room right here,
through a drafty hallway,
this room, the last lung to hold air.

XXX. dear john, n.

You’re going to learn about this
through an official communication
someday soon.
I typed it up and sent it to NASA
soon as I caught my breath.

But, I needed you to hear it from me.
I needed you to know I tried.
I needed you to see my face one last time,
know we fought back.
I needed you to know no one else should come here.

XXXI. mukbang, n.

I can hear them now
in the walls.

They’re going to get in
any minute now.

I’m not going to make it
back home.

So, I just want you to know
I lo-

Starting Over

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

I. light head, n. and adj.

Today is a new day.
I’m going to turn it all around.

Roll out of bed, complete a yoga routine
with my phone propped
against the lamp on my nightstand.

A quick shower, a quick breakfast
that I eat on my way to the bus stop.

Nothing is going to stop me.

II. per fas et nefas, adv.

Headphones in as I approach the stop.
No one is going to ruin my day.

No one is going to bring me down.
Lizzo will keep me afloat.

III. downpressor, n.

Bus pulls up,
everyone files on,
backpacks knock against each other,
people, doorframes, seats.

Bus driver’s voice mumbles through
his expectations. It’s early enough
that people quiet down for him,
but I leave my headphones in,

wait for his voice to stop,
the bus din to return,
the yellow dashes in the road
to scroll by underfoot.

IV. alieniloquy, n.

The thing about
the lines on the road
is that they’re hypnotizing
as they fly by.

An intermittent, off-yellow flash
carries your mind to
some elsewhere
without dimensions in time or space.

And when they end
at the parking lot’s edge,
you suddenly remember
you have to go to first period.

V. bobsled, v.

Hallways are full of bodies—
a current
pulls me right to Ms. Acevedo’s
classroom.
I don’t remember moving
my feet.

VI. rhubarb, n. and adj.

Throat’s tight.
Swallow the past, Tori;
this is a new chapter.
I put a smile on my face
convincing enough
to fool everyone
at my cooking station.

VII. lightning bird, n.

I’m holding steady until
he enters the room.
His hair curling
under the edge of his hat.
A jolt in my chest—
why
do I want to cry and smile
at the same time?

VIII. dump cake, n.

I look down at our counter,
can’t look up,
need to forget
he’s here.

Ms. Acevedo gives instructions;
I don’t hear them.
Shay does, assumes the role
of our group’s leader.

She tells me to measure and pour
baking powder, salt, flour
in a bowl and stir. I see his face
in the powdery mountain range.

IX. dunnish, adj.

Eli asks if I’m done mixing.
I nod and xe dumps
my bowl into xyrs, mixes.

I look up, the room’s colors
seem to be on a dimmer switch—
it looks like the sky
an hour before thunder.

X. folx, n.

Ms. Acevedo address the class
about over safety protocols.
Shay and Eli discuss
how to decorate our cake.

I sneak a headphone
through my sleeve to my palm,
rest it against my ear.
Hayley Williams yells about misery.

XI. ice blink, n.

The bell releases us
to the sea, a long voyage
to our next classes.

Stare ahead at nothing;
looks better than watching
bow waves collide.

Mr. Persson’s display for
the Revolutionary War
overwhelms his end of the hallway.

XII. birdscape, n.

Respite 
among war stories,
since
he’s in math class.
I
can stretch my wings,
restart
the new me.

XIII. bodgie, v.

New Tori
writes her notes in cursive.

New Tori
nods her head while someone talks.

New Tori
asks questions during lectures.

New Tori
has her shit together.

XIV. chugalug, v.

I drink from my water bottle
throughout third period,
which helps me focus
on geometric proofs—
tonight’s homework.

I get in the zone, my homework
finished, ten minutes to spare,
an empty water bottle.
I ask Mx. Archer to go to the bathroom.
They tell me to go fast.

XV. mediocritize, v.

You are never going to change.
There is no “New Tori.”

You are the same piece of shit
you were yesterday.

You are alone for a reason.
It was obvious he’d leave.

You are deluding yourself into thinking
anyone would like you.

I scramble for my headphones,
play the loudest Sleater-Kinney song I find.

XVI. spreathed, adj.

I feel cracks spread across my arms
as I enter the bathroom.
They become deep, wide;
demons rise from the dark crevasses.

I feel the boiling spittle drip
from their open maws,
their claws pierce my skin
as they push off to take flight.

It burns and I scratch, hoping
my nails bury them alive,
but they keep sprouting
like weeds in an unkempt garden.

XVII. ignorantism, n.

Shay enters the bathroom as I leave,
gives a small wave,
looks at my arms—
radiant pink, thin scratch marks
all over my forearms.

She tilts her head, her brows concerned,
starts to ask a question
she doesn’t have words for.
I tell her
I’m okay.

XVIII. monkey bear, n.

I don’t know why I can’t calm.
Why is it so hard
to stand still, to quiet
the thoughts that clash in my head
like marbles against a mirror?

I watch the branches on the tree
outside Mx. Archer’s window
sway in the wind as the bell rings.
Everyone gets up and leaves robotically,
but I just sit there, unable to look away.

XIX. dark thirty, n.

I see it clearly still—
the madrone branches
dripping into the sound 
as we sat in the bed of his truck,
watched the sky above Vashon turn pink.

My hand in his, a blanket between
us and a cloudless sky.
He poured coffee from a thermos,
told me he loved me. He said
he’d never hurt me.

XX. amoretto, n.

I was warm then;
I thought it boundless.
I wrote his name
in different styles in the
margins of my notebooks.

I lost focus in every class.
Doodles— abstract shapes, hearts—
left on every scrap of paper
in my backpack. I wrote
poems, left them in his locker.

XXI. nightertime, n.

Mx. Archer asks
if I want to eat lunch in their room,
if that’s why I haven’t left.
I shrug, nod, but really,
I’m not there;

I’m still lying in bed at
three in the morning, looking
at my phone, reading the last
message he sent me to make sure
I understood each word.

XXII. chuddies, n.

The chill of the metal chair
on my thighs brings me back.
I regret that New Tori decided
her style is yoga shorts and large sweatshirts
regardless of the weather outside or in.

Bell rings and I’ve eaten nothing
again. Frustration builds up behind my eyes;
I’m supposed to be better than this now.
Mx. Archer throws a granola bar at my desk,
tells me to eat it on my way to class.

XXIII. gist, v.

Suffice it to say
I inhaled the granola bar
on the way to English.
I listen to Big Freedia,
need to explode to start anew.

XXIV. menehune, n.

How could I have ever thought
I could start over
overnight, as if
it would ever be that simple?
I need to confront him.

XXV. yo, int. and n.

Chemistry. That’s when
I’ll see him next. That’s when
I’ll tell him what’s on my mind. 
I spend English drafting the words
I need to say to make him understand.

XXVI. drooking, n.

I stand outside the chemistry room,
waiting for him to show up.
I take a sip from my water bottle
when I see him round the corner
holding Melanie’s hand.

There’s a white flash and I feel
my fingers tighten into a fist,
a scratch grow inside my throat.
My water bottle points at
his waterlogged hat and shirt.

XXVII. grrr, v.

In my chest, a beehive
hit with a baseball bat,
their wings bristle against my skin.
I fly away before he says a word,
before an adult makes me talk about it.

XXVIII. mosker, v.

What was once vibrant, warm,
soured, cold and bitter as coffee dregs.
My throat on fire, I heave
by the mailboxes in the
neighborhood behind the school.

It’s over. There was never any chance.
You don’t get a fresh start.
You will always be the second choice,
alone, a fucked up girl
no one will remember.

XXIX. sabo, n.

He knew I’d be there.
He knew I’d see them.
He must have wanted me
to see them together, to see
how he’s moved on already.

They’re probably laughing now
at what a fool I am to believe
there was any possibility
of reconciliation, to believe
I am worth anything to anyone.

XXX. ablepsy, n.

My vision gets blurry, goes black.
I sit on the curb, dig my headphones
out of my pockets. My phone trembles
in my hands; I can’t see the screen,
can’t make the sounds to activate Siri.

Silence envelops me. I drop my phone,
don’t hear it hit the asphalt.
My breathing becomes muted; my chest
heaves, but there’s no sound— no air.
I don’t know what to do.

XXXI. jack-o’-lantern, n.

A light, an arm's length away,
appears, slowly retreats. I reach for
the light, a face amongst the dark, which
welcomes me, accepts me.
Why is it leaving?

I reach, lose balance; my palms,
knees slam the road. Pebbles
make homes in my skin. The light
fades like the sun over the horizon.
I evaporate as mist in the void.

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.