A Drop in Time

My stomach drops all the way to the ground like a brick. Like the stones Jon dropped all the way from the top of the tallest tree in our yard. How long will it take? He’d ask and then drop, and it was always shorter than I thought. My stomach is doing that right now, but even faster. It drops and drops and drops, but it never hits the ground. There’s only falling.
I think my stomach might drop right out of me until it does finally hit. I should hold it in; all I want to do is curl up until it stops. My body is held tight in place, the same as my dad’s hugs but without the warmth. There’s only cold chains, rushing air, and a falling stomach. I don’t know what’s happening, but my mouth is open; I’m screaming, I realize, and I can’t stop. What if a bug flies in? Cousin Aiden always said flies would fly into your mouth and all the way down your throat. Why can’t I close my mouth?
The air is running around me, streaming against my face and arms and legs. It’s trying to break my fall, but air can’t stop a stone. I’m going to fall, and I never even got to win a prize at the game booths. Why do my cheeks feel cold? Am I crying? The wind is flying in my eyes, trying to blind me. It stings, but I can’t close my eyes. They’re glued open; they’ll never close. I guess that’s why Dad told me not to play with superglue. The ground is getting bigger and bigger. It’s finally time to hit. I wonder how long I was falling. It’s probably not as long as I thought. I always lose the falling stone game.
I can finally close my eyes; at least now I won’t see when we hit the ground. But I wait, and there’s no thudding like a stone. Did I win this last stone game after all? Just a little jolt and my stomach isn’t falling anymore. Instead, it’s coming back up; the back of my throat burns, and then there’s acid in my mouth. Cheesy acid. I swallow, and it goes down, but the taste is still there. I can’t spit it out anywhere; I have to deal with it. I made it through the drop, but my throat is filled with acid, and I just want to get off.
Aiden said it would be fun. All the big kids aren’t scared of the drop, so I shouldn’t be either. It looked fine from far away, but it’s so tall. The drops are at least ten times taller than me; I’m barely even tall enough to be allowed. I wish I was a little shorter. Then I could stay on the ground; I don’t like being the stone. My mom is standing and watching, recording. I wish I stayed with her.
At least the drop is over now, and it looks flat ahead. Going straight like this is just like a car; I like it. It’s smooth and not scary at all. Leaves from trees glide by. I could just reach out and grab one if my arm was a little longer. Surrounded by green and in a tight hold, my stomach settles back down like it should be. Maybe this isn’t so bad, after all.
There isn’t much to look at up here. I left my glasses with my mom; everything on the ground is too blurry. There’s only the old car I’m in, red paint chipping from lots of rides and wind, over and over, and Aiden next to me. He looks like he says something, but I can’t hear. Did the wind fill my ears and block them? It feels like a dream, floating around; maybe I did hit the ground and die.
The wood under the car looks old, way older than me. There are a bunch of cracks, and it looks like something took a big bite out of one beam. The wood creaks, and I can hear again. It sounds like it’s just going to just fall apart and let us drop. I hope that doesn’t happen. I just want to get off. The people in front of us are suddenly climbing a hill, going up into the air. How do they stay like that? It looks like they’re going straight up into the air. I hope my cheese fries don’t come back up.
Then it’s us on the hill, and this isn’t that bad. It’s like a car, just going up instead of straight. The clicking around us drowns out everything, and I feel alone. We’re getting higher than the trees; there are just blankets of green spread out everywhere, like my bed after Mom makes it in the morning. Maybe we can just fall on those leaves and bounce like on a cloud. I can’t see the people at the very front; are they already falling?
I don’t like this. The waiting for the drop is worse than falling because at least falling ends fast. Waiting just ends in a drop, but when? I hear the first shout. Is it too late for me to turn into a bird and fly away? Then the hands fly into the air, and I don’t know how they do that. How do they hold their stomachs in? That must be something you learn when you’re older; I like keeping my stomach in my body.
My mouth hurts; I’m pressing my teeth together again. Dad always says not to do that, but I always do it anyway. It keeps me from biting my tongue. It’s like I’m grinding my teeth down, sanding them like my Dad’s wood pieces, but they never get smaller. None of them are wiggly right now, either, so I can just press and press until I forget.
There’s a shout from beside me, and my stomach drops again to the ground.

Heaven and Hell Reside in the Same Place

My Uncle owned this farm in the country and one summer my parents had decided that I should be a little tougher, so they sent me with him. My favorite animals were these pigs. You know George Orwell hated pigs. Made them the villains of Animal Farm just cause he despised them. But they took my heart. You feed them marshmallows and they scurry up to you and slobber them out of your hand. However, my least favorite animal was this goat. Swear to God it knew I was different. Every time I walked up to it its wonky eye would stair straight at me then it would hiss.
This place felt like soup on a Sunday. There was no T.V. just bookshelf after bookshelf. You get up as early as the sun and work till the moon takes over your shift. The stars themselves looked like footprints left on the floor of heaven and it’s all I wanted and all I’ll ever want.
I want a rancher on three acres of land. I want a rap around porch, and I want it with you. You could be a teacher and I’ll cook the kids little treats for test days. I could sell the milk from the cows and take the pigs to prize shows and we could be members of the FFA. We could sit on the front porch and sit on the swing and talk till three in the morning. Sleep with the windows open. Birds could sing in the tree in the front yard, that little song you always say sounds like their singing my name. That’s what they could sing. Most of all I want it with you.
You know that summer I went to my Uncles I was fourteen. Just came out. Told everyone I was queer as a three-dollar bill and I’m sure that’s why they wanted to make me a little bit tougher. For when school started and stuff. When I got there my uncle had told me, we go to Church every Sunday. Unless you’re as sick as dog that’s where you’ll be. I went every Sunday. Helter Skelter if you ask me. Klan members to your left, bible thumpers to your right. No one knew, not till later, that I played for the same team. But we both know I don’t pass. So when two old ladies came up and told me that they’re praying for me. I knew it wasn’t cause I lip synched the hymn or was fourteen and yet to have my confirmation. It was cause everyone knew I was a queer through and through. Couldn’t hide it to save my life.
That summer I was there my Uncle had turned forty-five. He had decided that he wanted to go to his friend’s house for his party. So, I turned up to this party with my uncle, his wife, and those baby girls I was telling you about. We turn up and everybody looks the same. Men fit and tanned, woman in Sunday dresses and blonde hair. Kids in little button-down shirts. Well first, I forgot to tell you, we pulled up to this house and 12 feet high was one cross, then 10 feet high were the two crosses beside it. I swear to God I threw up in the car. Had to be dragged into the party. Sat there for ten minutes looking at everybody. Got a drink, sat down, alone. Then my uncle hollers. “Go inside and grab something for me, will ya”. So I did. Well, shit, I don’t think I walked out with it. Ha! Course. Well I walked in and unsurprisingly got put up against the wall by my collar. Slapped in the face a few times and given this talk. They said “We hang people like you from rafters. You understand me. You better make a better choice about your life or we will make it for you. Pray to God that he may forgive you for this stray from his path.” Then I was dropped. Kicked a few times and left to lay on the floor for twenty minutes. You get hit hard enough you don’t just get up and walk away. You lay there and half kiss the ground while waiting to have the ability to stand given back to you.
That. That changed my life. The worst part was not the beating I had taken, Cause that I could get at home. The worst part was that they started with the image of me hanging. My great grandfather told me that when you’re hung your tongue stretches out of your mouth. That’s all I dreamed about for months. My tongue with Saliva dripping down it. My face covered with bruises. You know when you get a bruise and you touch it and it doesn’t feel like its you. Its to hard and the nerves just aint right. That must be what your skin feels like right before they put the rope around you.
That’s why we can’t live in the country. Everybody says, “oh its better”. “That can happen to you anywhere”. “Klan’s active everywhere”. Klan can’t burn a cross in your yard if you aint got no yard.
God dammit! It’s all I wanted. I wanted a yard full of kids. But if we lived here, we couldn’t kiss with the shades down. Our kids would go to school targets. We’d have no friends. You certainly couldn’t teach. So now our only choice is the city. Packed together but you don’t know anybody. There’s no yards. No animals. You drink weird fruity drinks, no moonshine. No parties in the woods. You can’t build anything. Can’t sleep with the doors unlocked let alone with the windows open.
They took that from me! One afternoon they took it from me. We are two sides of the same coin. One change in DNA and we’re the same person. And I’m the one that can’t live in a home. I’m tired.

Good Night

“Willow Jones, right?” Asked Dr. Roberts.
“That’s correct, but who are you?” Willow asked in a stern voice.
“Ah how rude of me! My name is Dr. Roberts. I’m guessing that you’re confused as to where you are, correct?”
“Yes.”
“You are at a facility that helps people “cope” with traumatic incidents.”
“Then why am I here?!”
“You know why. Listen I’m just here to help.”
“If that’s true then why am I strapped down on this bed?!”
“Precautions. Now, just let me help you.”
“What if I don’t want your help!”
“Well that would be too bad now wouldn’t it? After all you wouldn’t want anything to happen to Lily, now would you?”
“Where is she!?”
“Now, now, I’ll answer your questions later. Now, tell me what happened on those two days.”
“ Fine. The night of the incident, my sister Lily and I were sitting in the living room. Lily was watching TV, while I was finishing up my homework. Suddenly we heard a knock on the door.
“Mom, dad! Someone’s at the door!” I yelled. The person knocked again but even harder than before. Mom and dad came down stairs. They looked at each other, nodded then looked at me and Lily.
“Willow, take your sister to the back of the house and wait by the back door, okay?” Dad asked.
“Okay, but what’s going on?” I asked.
“You don’t need to know why right now, but I’ll tell you later okay?”
“Okay.” I said as I grabbed Lily.
“Willow, what’s going on?” Lily asked?
“I don’t know, let’s go play in the back room okay?”
“Okay!”
As I rushed to the back room with Lily the banging continued. After a minute or so the door swung open. I didn’t see any thing but I heard a lot of yelling. One of the voices sounded familiar. It sounded like the voice of Lily’s doctor and family friend Dr. Abraham or uncle Alister as Lily and I called him.
As Lily and I waited by the back door we heard gun shots. I could see that Lily was scared so I tried to calm her down.Suddenly, we heard foot steps coming down the hall. That’s when I noticed it. A candle on the coffee table had been lit and the flame was growing. The weird thing was that it hadn’t been lit when we came in the room. As the footsteps grew closer the fire started to grow. Then, I looked back at Lily and realized that the more she panicked the more the flame grew. But it wasn’t just the candle that caught flame. As I picked Lily up to run outside and too the neighbors house I saw a spark in the fireplace. I realized we had to get out of there even quicker because within seconds the fire grew.
I opened the door and ran outside with Lily, she started to cry. A few seconds later the fire seemed to grow. After we were a safe distance from our house I looked back and noticed it, the house had completely caught on fire.
“T-they’re gone,” Lily muttered. I watched as tears continued to stream down her face. Helplessly, I held her even closer to me. I could feel her shaking in my arms.
“It’s all my fault,” she cried.
“No it isn’t, you didn’t know, neither of us did.” I told her in a soft voice.”
“What about a the other incident?” Dr. Roberts asked. The room was silent for a few minutes and then Willow started to speak.
“It had been about a year after the incident and the two of us had started to settle down. Lily had been enrolled in a elementary school and nothing else had happened until that one day. It was a rainy Monday morning, and Lily and I were standing in front of her school.
“Do I have you have to go?” Lily asked disappointedly.
“Yeah but today my classes end early so I’ll try to pick you up before I have to go to work, okay?” I said.
“Okay.”
“Love you,” I said as I hugged her.
“Love you too!” Lily replied as she headed into the school building.
It was 2:20 pm and I was waiting in the front of the school too pick her up. After a few minutes I heard a kid screaming and that’s when I saw it. A big man in a black suit with short brown hair and sunglasses was dragging Lily out of the school as she screamed and cried.
“Lily!” I yelled in a panic.
“Willow!” She cried. Suddenly, I could feel the ground shake from underneath my feet. The last two things I remember are the guy forcing Lily into a black car and someone injecting me with something that made me black out.
That’s all I remember. Now where’s Lily!?”
“Calm down. Bring the kid in!” Dr. Roberts yelled. The door open d and a pale girl with blonde hair was thrown into the room.
“Lily!” Willow yelled, relieved too see her little sister was okay. Willow tried to get out of the restraints but it didn’t work.
“Calm down before you hurt yourself,” Dr. Roberts said as he got up and started to undo the restraints. As soon as she was free, willow ran to hug her sister.
“W-willow?” Lily asked.
“Y-yeah it’s me.” Willow whispered.
“I missed you.” Lily said
“Me too.”
Dr. Roberts stood over the two girls and clapped.
“How sweet two sisters reunited, I could cry.” He said sarcastically, “too bad it won’t last for long.”
“W-what do you mean?!” Willow asked.
“Well we need Lily for experiments since we want to learn the extent of her powers so we’re sending her to a facility with kids like her. So you won’t see her again, and we can’t just let you go we can’t risk you telling anyone so we’re going to have to get rid of you. So say night, night!”

Hidden Behind the Industry

It came out of nowhere. The all black Chevrolet swerved past me. I skim the curb with my bike, scraping my knee, hard. “What the heck, man!” I shout out at the vehicle. But it keeps going. I manage to see through the tinted rear windows crates full of the dogs that I’ve seen at the shelter for years. “That’s nice of them,” I thought to myself, “but why?” Crates and crates full of the animals nobody wanted given to a careless person who was obviously very comfortable with their life. “Oh my god,” I whisper to myself. My mouth hangs open. I grab my bike and start following the car.
Barely 10 minutes of following, my pocket starts to vibrate. “Shoot,” I say to myself. As I stop my bike with my foot, I grab my phone. Imprinted on the black screen was the letters, “M-O-M.” “Hello?” I say as I pick up.
“ERIKA DIANE MCDONALD WHERE ARE YOU?!” yelled the other side of the phone. I quickly pull it away from my ringing ear.
“Chill mom, at school, finishing homework.” I deceivingly lied.
“These chores won’t do themselves!” screamed the other side.
“I know, I know, I’ll be there soon.” I said as I hung up.
The car was now barely visible. I click my gear to go up, and chase the car with my legs burning. I panted heavily, my breath raspy as I gasped for air. The car had stopped at a mysterious looking location. We’ve driven past this place many times. It was a sketchy grey building located in an odd part of the town. It was a hot day in the midst of September, with it still bright out, I was dripping in buckets of sweat. I chugged almost half of the water remaining in my water bottle. As I spied on the car behind a dark alleyway, I see a man lugging the crates of animals in the building. Once finished, he comes out with a grin showing off his extremely white teeth and a tote with riches. “I knew it.” I say to myself. He looks immediately in my direction. I gasp as my stomach drops. I sprint far into the corridor. A subtle noise from above me makes me gasp. I look up in fear just to see a stray cat.
I waited in the alleyway to catch my breath. The cat circled my legs and the car was gone now. It was matted and was obviously starving. I open my lunch and remember how long ago it felt to pack it. I handed the cat what remained of my tuna sandwich. It took it greedily, but stayed near me to finish it. It seemed as though it was scared to go near the building, which is understandable considering the situation it would be in.
As I look through the window of the building, it is filled with animals in outstandingly small crates. Bunnies, monkeys, dogs, cats, and mice clogged my vision. I felt helpless that I could do nothing. “Why’d I come here?” I asked myself. I couldn’t have saved those poor animals from the pure torture. So many animals are in need, but all I could do is stare. Like a barrier blocking them from the rest of humanity’s “good side.” Only showing them the dark of life. Tears flood my eyes, blurring my vision. “They would’ve died anyways.” I say trying to comfort myself. It only made it worse, hot tears fell down my face. I look at them looking at me with a pleading look for help on their face. Not wanting to go another day getting injected with the new craze of the beauty industry. I tried to think of happy things, like seeing my dog back at home. But to imagine that if he was in one of these buildings he could be killed tomorrow for a test that’s not even reliable made the tears come again.
“What was that?” I ask myself, frightened. Down the alleyway I can hear people talking. My heart drops.
*RING* *RING* *RING*
“Oh my god.” I say. My hands start to get sweaty, I get butterflies in my stomach, and I start to get dizzy. “Wrong time, please don’t let this be real.” I sprint to my bike, which is my only sense of protection. M-O-M is imprinted on the screen. With my hand shaking, I answer.
“Hello?”
“WHERE IN THE WORLD ARE YOU, IT’S 6:00!” my mom’s voice, enraged at the other side of the phone. Breathing heavily, while keeping my head on a swivel for the people down the alleyway, I say, “I-I-I- I lost track of the uhh time.” “Really?” I ask myself, “your best comeback?” I sigh in annoyance.
“I expect to see you in no more than 20 minutes.” She spat at me. I could see her face of disgrace. 20 minutes! It takes me 15 minutes to get to school. And 10 to get home. I hop on my bike and-
“THERE SHE IS!” a hidden man behind me says. I freeze; every muscle in my body stops. I can hear my heart beat as my breathing gets heavier. My bike handles which I’m gripping feel hard, my helmet feels tight, and my shoulders tense. I look ahead, not behind. What do I do? I can’t run from them, but I can’t hide from them. At this moment I wish I could go back in time, never had come here, but to go straight home. Why DID I come here? Letting everything sink in, I realize I’ve wasted so much time doing nothing, but chase after a stupid car to look through a window of animals that made me cry and now get in trouble for who knows what.
“WAAHAAASSS!” I hear behind me, before thinking I turn. Through my eyes I see the stray cat, trapped in a net. “NOO!” I yell. The cat looks at me longingly, knowing it’s near future…

The Runner

Two-lane country highways lined with prairie grass and hills like a tame, miniature roller coaster, graced by two sets of off-rhythmically pounding feet. Ala and her dad jogging slowly, the chirp of crickets and woosh of pickup trucks interrupting labored breathing. “How much further?” the eleven-year-old asks, with her curly ponytail swinging behind her. “Just around the bend,” he says. Six years later, Ala takes the same route at the beginning of her run, although her dad can’t keep up anymore, his Asics retired from the pavement to the stands of her cross country meets.

Running a routine, Ala finds it easy to lose herself in the momentum she creates, pushing her body and letting her mind wander. She thinks about school, her friends, her family, she plans her future and tries to envision what her life will be like at thirty, tries to conjure her future husband’s face into her mind. Sometimes comforting, this habit of thinking sometimes scares her, taking twists and turns when she does, the quickening of her breathing as her pace picks up matching the growing intensity of her thoughts.

Catching her breath, heart beating and hands on her knees, she stops in her tracks with sweat dripping down her body, allowing her mind to slowly wind down to a jog.
Ala looks up from where she stopped, straightening her spine, bringing her hands from her knees to the back of her head, chest still heaving and starts to walk. It’s night time in May and the chill is perfectly cooling, brushing her cheeks and tingling the strands of hair wet with sweat on the edges of her scalp. The sky is too cloudy for stars tonight, but the smell of rain still hangs in the air from earlier. Ala watched it stream down her windows, listened to it tapping on the roof, impatient for it to pass so she could run. In the small-town downtown, Ala picks up her pace again, calming her thoughts and watching the buildings move faster as her quads, hamstrings, calves, and core engage, propelling her down the damp sidewalk.

A red Chryseler pulls up beside Ala and the window rolls down, shaken out of the trance her footsteps had lulled her into she looks to see who it is, removing one earbud. “What are you always running from girl?” It’s her one of her friends from school, probably on her way home from work. Ala is taken aback for a second, then laughs, “Nothing,” she says, and the two talk about the chemistry class they share.

Both earbuds back in, music playing, Ala heads home the long way, taking her time with strong, lengthy strides, lungs filled with fresh air. At home in bed, lungs now filled with candy flavored nicotine, Ala can’t get that off-hand question out of her head. I’m not running from anything, she tells herself. Right? But she’s heard it before, her dad bragging about her cross-country prowess always saying, “It’s like she’s running from something, and she’s definitely getting away.” Among assertions of her attractiveness from catcallers would always be, “Why so fast?’ “What’s chasing you?” Exhaling vapor, she hears her coach’s voice ring in memory, “You are in control of your body.” She wishes she was in control of her life too.

Knowing her past, Ala can’t stand the idea of walking into the rest of her life without warning. Sitting next to the railing at the local baseball game at age fifteen, her mom right next to her holding the popcorn, everything was okay. Next day, sitting on the other side of the white railing of her mom’s hospital bed, everything changed. She watched her father disappear into himself, as her mother’s place at the table remained empty. She never made it back home, and all Ala can hear since is the crushing silence of her mothers absence, the void she left behind.

The fact is, if she could, Ala would go shopping for her future, pick the aspects, people, and experiences she wants and put them in her cart. Browse through the store of humanity, compare prices, go through the checkout line, pay the price of whatever grief she will have to endure and walk out of the automatic glass sliding door with peace of mind. She didn’t have a warning, and now she feels like she needs one.

Aware these hopes are childish and fantastical, Ala does what she can: run. She runs from her past. She runs towards her future. She runs in case her world flips over again. She flat out sprints rather than face the present, deathly afraid the past might catch up with her, and her future may not be any better.

Her mom died quickly, a totalled Chevy and a broken neck. Now Ala itches when she sits still, fidgets her way to sleep, and chats her way through class. She blasts music in the car, drives too fast, and creeps at red lights. She doesn’t feel at ease, can’t settle into friendship, and can rarely make it through an entire movie anymore, always thinking ahead to the next moment, never living in the current one. Her one escape from the restlessness is the complete physical exhaustion of miles and miles on her thin legs. In the shower, late at night, and while she ties her sneakers, “When can I relax? When can I stop running?” Loops through her mind, while black tar tears pour directly from her heart out of her eyes, dripping down her face and burning her skin. Ala can’t live like this forever, the soles of her feet feel like she’s been walking on burning embers. Body pushed beyond exhaustion, soul pushed beyond feeling. Ala is unbearably tired, yet she falls asleep, wakes up and runs again.

Pouring her cereal into the bowl, a Cinnamon Toast Crunch cascade, Ala’s dad is making coffee. The aroma gently fills the morning-light filled kitchen. He turns to her, “Ala, are you running from yourself?”

Hidden Cemetery

I open up the pool, removing its musty cover. It is the first time since it happened.

The small, chlorinated pool reminds me of an ocean, a vast repository storing its dead on the bottom of the sea, corpses of fish, shrimp, crustaceans scattered along its floor. No one ever sees an ocean for what it really is: a cemetery hidden in its depths. They choose to see only the beauties of the ocean, its glittering, gleaming surface. Ha. What a façade.

Lana was there too, at the bottom of the pool floor, abandoned and alone, her last breath filled with water. Yet not even the corpses of those ocean creatures to accompany her.

God probably decided she was too good for this oppressive, confining world. I like to think He set her free. But sometimes I wonder why he couldn’t have taken me too. Every day, others appear so happy, while I’m stuck in my own inescapable cage. Every day, others breathe deeply while I drown. Every day, others awake to fresh possibilities, while I endure the torture of the same sick cycle. Every day, others live, while I merely exist.

“Elise, Lana had an accident in the pool. Come home right now.”
Although four months have passed, it still loops over and over in my head like a broken recording.

Maybe it was my fault for not being there. For choosing to start the school project with Jenny on that specific day. For even leaving the house in the first place. If I had been watching over Lana, none of this would have happened.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to die. I just want– no, I need relief from the constant pain, grief, and devastation I feel. It just seems like the only method of closure would be by joining her, right?

I gaze up at the murky, algae-speckled water, silently sucking me down. At the bottom of the pool, I shiver as the water seeps into my clothes, invading the warmth of my own body. Mom’s not home. No one notices me down here, sitting in the depths of my backyard pool. Just like no one did with Lana. Everyone seems to be embracing the fullness of their own lives.

Thirty seconds pass. My lungs cry out for just one breath. My body shrieks at me to escape. Yet I tell the nagging Survival Instinct to go away. I shouldn’t be breathing, not when Lana couldn’t.

I close my eyes, embracing the water surrounding me. With my eyes closed, a constellation of red and green dots dances on a black canvas. Then, my heart drops as I recall those long brown lashes, auburn locks, those stubby fingers, the large dimple on the left side of her face. Lana is in swim trunks and a white bikini, sucking her thumb as she murmurs something to her rubber ducky. Her voice rings, slightly breathy, every time, filled with a tint of wonder and innocence with every stumbling word of hers. When I look more closely at her thumb, though, it is throbbing red.

She trudges farther and farther from the shallow end of the pool, trying to catch her bobbing yellow ducky as it floats towards the deep end. Every kick of hers sends the duck farther and farther into the deep end of the pool, the exact one in which I’m submerged. My stomach drops as Lana moves farther and farther from the shallow end. On the patio, Mom’s fingers are wrapped around the red hair of a shirtless man, tattoos snaking around his neck. Her eyes are trained on his, oblivious to Lana’s quiet but violent flailing behind her. Suddenly, Lana’s face disappears from the surface. I scream my head off, but no one hears me. My sister is sinking and sinking, but I realize I can’t do anything. I’m not actually there.

At the startling remembrance of this memory, I suddenly realize I genuinely can’t breathe, that I haven’t been breathing. The Survival Instinct dives in, grips onto my legs, and shoots me back into the air. Its trained grip stays around me, keeping my head above the salty pool water. Tears blur my eyes as I strain to satisfy my starving lungs; my chest is heaving like an asthmatic without an inhaler.

Suddenly, the back collar of my shirt is yanked upwards. The vision disappears. I whirl around to face Mom’s bloodshot eyes and piercing scream. Hot tears coil into the wrinkles of her mouth.

Her dark eyes disgust me. I can’t stop shaking.
“Why bother pulling me out. Why try to save me, and not Lana.”
Mom gapes at me. “Elise?”
“I’m just glad you were actually alert and paying attention for once.”
My voice drips with sarcasm as I swipe at my eyes.
Her responding silence is unbearable.
Unstoppable, gut-wrenching sobs tear through my chest now. The tears create a numbing sensation against the freezing water I had been submerged in. I’m dizzy from the lack of oxygen.
“Honey, I–” Sobs wrack her body as well. Obviously for a different reason, I’m assuming.
The world turns dark. A black fury threatens to engulf and control me.
“Come inside, you’re shivering.” I slap her hand away, but in vain, as my knees buckle and tears blur my vision. I reluctantly fall into her arms.

We walk inside.

From the window of my house, you would see tears streaming from both pairs of eyes. The sound of wails echoing throughout the house. A lot of screaming. A whole lot of screaming. Another wave of overflowing tears, as if a river escaping a dam. Meanwhile, the clouds gather, the sky darkens. The dam stabilizes, as the tears finally subside.

An hour later, I walk back out to the pool, squinting through my awfully puffy eyes. The moon’s glitters instill this hidden cemetery with life.
“Elise, what are you doing?”
“Mom, I’m closing the pool back up. We can close it for good this time.”

Witching Hour

Nevaeh holds the universe on a leash. She beckons it from the dark embrace of her backyard chicken coop, squeezing its entirety in-between the slates of old wood and our hunched, summer-soaked bodies. I breathe quietly as she works, not daring to disrupt the magic dripping from her palms, and inspect the tips of her Dollar Tree stick-on nails as they clack unhurriedly across the tarot cards.
To Nevaeh, the universe is something to be tamed. She adorns its neck with collars like Karma, or Fate, or Destiny, and doesn’t offer an explanation for its changing form.
Once, eyes wide in the semi-darkness of The Coop, I’d asked her how she kept a pet as large as the universe in a two-bedroom house. Nevaeh had cracked one eye open- disobeying her own orders that they remain closed- and shrugged.
“You know how pets are,” she said. “Big dogs can wander far– but they always come home when you call.”
I hadn’t known; I’d only ever owned a hamster.
The three tarot cards she splays in front of me now are ominous. The glossy sheen of their backsides scintillate like dark beetles, eating up what little light filters through the cracks, but Nevaeh’s brown fingers ease the first one face-up without a speckle of fear.
The High Priestess.
“This card symbolizes your past.” She purrs the words, letting them settle into the cramped space. “The High Priestess represents a quest for knowledge. You may have been looking for somebody during your past, or maybe some new hobby caught your interest.”
I nod, trying to cleave through the vagueness of her response, and I remember the past as it was the first time I entered her home.
So unlike Nevaeh’s quiet deviousness, her house ran reckless with purple baseball jerseys and wilted soccer balls and cleats stained green with grass. I learned that Nevaeh belonged to the church downtown, and that all her siblings shared a room, and that her mom didn’t seem to mind that Nevaeh eddied her faiths together like a spoon stirring tea. I left that night, wonderstruck; I had never seen a house so touched with life.
The second card Nevaeh turns over is less optimistic than the first.
“The Hierophant,” Nevaeh reads. “This is your present. It represents stagnation and convention. Does that mean anything to you?’
I shake my head, tired of the mundanity that accompanied the last two cards.
“Do the last one.”
The third card shimmers when it flips.
“Death,” she utters smoothly, watching through a devious grin as panic catches me around my middle like a rough wave. Symbols waver throughout faiths, I know, but death is as universally dark as birth is light. “Death isn’t always a bad thing. Death can mean transformation. Or growth. Or beginnings.”
“How do you know?”
“I don’t, not for certain. I guess we’ll just have to see.”
I frown, skeptical but withdrawn, and we spend the last few golden-spun strands of sunlight trying to track down the chickens we had let loose for our congregation in their home.
I take a trip to Paris with my parents the summer before fifth grade. The only escape from the heat’s wicked fingers is our tour of the catacombs, the air damp and the skulls glistening with beads of ancient perspiration. I follow a mosaic of calf bones with my flashlight and wonder if Nevaeh could tell me where their owners went.
When I return home, trading French cuisine for cafeteria hot-lunch, I lose my nerve. December’s chill has already settled over Massachusetts the first time Nevaeh takes me to her church.
I expect, upon entry, for Nevaeh’s universe to swallow me whole. I’m ready for it; for the gentle confidence she seeps with, for a universe of my own.
Instead, the only things that swallow me whole are the upturned chairs left from choir practice that rise to form a metal ribcage at the door. We curve under them, krill into the belly of a whale, and emerge into empty arms.
I did not know that the universe would be so docile. So mute. I breathe in, breathe out, listen to the silence and the thick walls and the late afternoon’s sticky glow. A single church official haunts the pews. I watch him weave through rows and rows of candles. Some lit, some not, the man studies them all, the edges of his white clothing stretching and collapsing against the shadows like the waning flicker of a flame.
I wait another moment for something grand to click into place. For a shift in the world that will bring the universe to my feet like a dove from the reaches of a tree. Nothing happens.
Nevaeh nudges my shoulder, a silent urge to follow her towards the front. Her hands trace over the glossed wood of the church benches as we walk, reminding me of the grace in which she dealt the tarot cards so many months before. The High Priestess, the Hierophant, and Death.
Death. That last tarot card of the drawing, that promised misery, rises to my mind as we near the candles. Nevaeh had explained it as something to be welcomed, a time of transition and growth. And now, surrounded by the soft flutterings of candles, I finally begin to make sense of it.
New beginnings, transformation, the art of letting go.
I was not brought up to look for a god in the little things. My family speaks religion in a broken tongue, scrambling blessings and superstitions the way a toddler does English syntax. When Nevaeh presses a burning candle into my hands, waxy edges not quite dripping, my fingernails scrape and dent and puncture. I do not know how to pray, or tame the universe, and I’m certain that it makes me weak. But Nevaeh’s grin is there, loud and daring and kind, and it doesn’t matter that I don’t know how to pray.
I close my eyes against the flame and let go.

Torn Canopies

I was pacing around the back courtyard today, debating how to sell the last of the medicine shops, when I decided to pay a late-night visit to the lotus pond. I kiss Moqiu before leaving the house. She cradles Apung in her lap, her last notes of lullaby fading into a gentle snore. The bowl of lotus broth she should’ve taken before bed is still full. My hand brushes her face when I shrug on my overcoat. She doesn’t stir. I replace the latch as I slip out the door.
Cinder paths circle the lotus pond in a lattice of spotlight and shadow. The moonlight is running water, dew on every leaf and flower. I’m the only one here at this hour—my feet fall into an easy stroll, my hands clasp themselves behind my back. I bathe in the lotus fragrance and moonlight.

When my mind floods with memories of maidens’ lotus picking, I turn to face the water.
Maidens had dotted the pond with rowboats and melodies. There were always many onlookers—just as much wooing as there was whooping. The lotuses themselves extended far above the waterline, unfurling and blooming in the breeze like the maidens’ dresses.
Her dress was rounded with curves; this was long before she knew silver hair or skin outlining the ribcage. Her features took after the white flowers between the lotus pads—relaxed, her face was a reticent bud; a smile released it in bloom. A breeze brought puffs of earthy sweet like a faint, distant song. This I observed through a tide of heads and hats. The throngs at the waterside were a sticky, stifling mass.
When a draft rippled through the leaves, I saw her boat give a flimsy teeter.
I dove in as her boat gave in. Her splash matched mine.
Her shrieks pierced the sky as we thrashed to shore, our elbows and knees tearing gashes in the lotus canopy.
Later, the crowd drowned us in cheers as we lay collapsed at the waterside, gasping for air and soaked to the bone. Only when clerks from my father’s medicine shop arrived to whisk us away in sedan chairs did I remember to release her waist. We changed at the back of the shop—I into a silk gown and her into a spare dress from one of the female assistants—before her father arrived. As she left, she pressed a freshly written note into my hand. The wet ink left a stain on my palm. Moqiu. Call me Moqiu.
That autumn, we donned red before the altar and declared our vows.
Moqiu…
My head jerks up—I’m in my own doorway. I draw the door close, tiptoeing in. Moqiu’s been asleep for hours. I carry her and Apung into the bedroom and lie down with my arms wrapped around her hollowed frame.

The night we laid next to each other in a room of red, our bridal vests tinged with the scent of incense and firecrackers, I ran my hand over her cheeks and promised to hold her until we were two heads of white hair. She smiled, and our hearts bloomed.
We bloomed as each spring gave way to summer and sunlight splashed across the bedroom like melted butter. We bloomed as her burlap tunic hid a bulging tummy and then Apung as he whimpered between fabric and flesh. New years gave us new skins; our fortune peeled away as clerks and customers deserted the medicine shops for more lucrative pharmacies. Even as mildew crept across our empty medicine stalls, she only smiled gentler. After Apung, her beauty softened to grace.
So we were always in bloom.

When the doctor finished his last sentence with ‘no cure,’ I whisked her out of the office before my eyes overflowed with tears. Her body was feather-light, but I stood for hours outside of the medicine shop, gasping for air. Moqiu kept silent, her head settled low.

The sunset today is an unhealthy crimson. It dots the bedroom’s innards with blood.
Moqiu plays with her sewing, circling the needle thrice with thread before pulling the knot taut. The needle falls back into the bedside tray with a clink and her drawn-out sigh.
When she lays out the vest in front of me, my hand lands on hers.
“Let me wear this when I go.” Her eyes are sunken when they meet mine. A rueful smile plays on her lips, but she struggles to raise the corners of her mouth. Her tunic hangs off her body in empty folds. “Is it done?”
“Medicine shop? Sold. Should last you three more months of refills and—”
“No, the coffi—”
“… and then we can, can scrape together more—”
“Let me see it—let me see where I’ll go.”

The doorway to the back courtyard is warped with age but still fits two people shoulder to shoulder. Her feet drag across the yard in slurred steps. She nearly collapses stepping over the threshold, but I catch her by the waist, and she manages to right herself in time.
The coffin is nothing fancy, but well-built. I still remember sanding and setting every plank, every eye in the wood smoothed over and washed with tears. I prop up her arms as her hands run over the coffin, her starved eyes trying to swallow it whole.
“It’s great, it’s great.” She breathes into the nook of my shoulder. Her face relaxes when her arms go slack.
I wilt.

Tonight, I slam the door and don’t care for the latch. Apung is crying because he’s in the wrong set of arms.
The moonlight filters through the foliage and casts ghastly polka-dots of shadow. A light fog hangs over the pond, leaving lotus pads awash with a milky hue. On the water’s face, the dainty silhouettes of the willow branches dance to a harmonious tune. Apung allows me some silence, and for a moment it washes over both of us.
A strong draft ripples through the lotus leaves, and Apung’s cries tear the night apart.

Noodles

One day, my mom decided that it would be a good idea to adopt a dog from a dog shelter that she found on Facebook. She called us downstairs and asked us if we agreed on the dog that she planned on getting and of course my brothers and I said “Yes” because we’d been bugging her about dogs for years and she always stuck with “No! We are not getting a dog because I said so!” But finally, we are finally able to get a family dog and we were excited. She pointed to the bright, desktop computer and on it was a mixed breed dog named Noodles. She was a medium sized dog with black fur, and with a white chest and paws. She is a German shepherd, Labrador, and pit-bull mix. “Aww she’s so cute “, I said. “Yeah, she’s cool” my brothers added. “She’s a former bait dog, so that means she used to be abused and used as a dog that bigger dogs would fight and pick on because she was small” my mom explained. My brothers felt sympathy for her and agreed to rescue her. “We will go met her and take her home tomorrow” she added. We went on with the rest of our day and went to bed.
The next day, I woke up and I was delighted that we were getting a new dog. I got up and did my morning routine such as brush my teeth, wash my face and cleaned my room. But it was not like any other day. I did everything with excitement, and joy. Then finally it was time to get dressed. I opened my closet door and as the cool breeze from the door hit my face, I entered my closet and picked out a top, pants, and shoes. Next, I put the clothes on and then my socks and shoes. I put my favorite lotion and perfume on which filled me with a little more joy. It smelled like candy apples, flowers, and a hint of vanilla. I grabbed my mask that I hung on a pin to the right of my door and went downstairs to eat breakfast. Afterwards it was time to leave, so we got in the car and left. On the car ride there, I thought about the pleasures of having a dog, like playing with her, walking her, and training her.
While I was daydreaming, my mom got a phone call and she answered it. When she picked up it was my brothers longtime homeschool teacher, my mom’s friend, and my new teacher. “Hi, what’s the address again” she asked. My mom gave her the address and we met at the shelter which was also the house of the owner. My teacher brought my friend named Ava. She also brought her two daughters. When we arrived, we got out of the car and played with my teachers’ dog and daughters. After, the owner walked out of her house and onto her bricked porch with Noodles and walked to us for the introductions. She greeted us, while Noodles stayed behind because she was petrified of anyone but her current owner. The owner went back to Noodles and tried to comfort her. Then one by one we came over and pet Noodles. We went in order from oldest to youngest, so I was last. Before I came over, I was doing flips in the front yard with my friends. Then I got called over and I walking to the gate that had a sign that read: “BEWARE OF DOGS” I saw Noodles and said” Aww” while she was trying to get as close as possible to her owner. Then Noodles jump up to she was standing up on her hind legs and her white paws were on the owner’s hip. Then we walked out of the gate to my friends, mom, and teacher. Noodles begged the owner not to go by whining and giving her puppy eyes. We all petted her and talked to the owner about what and what not to do. A few minutes later it was time to leave so the owner got her truck with my two brothers and the dogs and I got in my mom’s car and we drove home while she followed us. When we got to the house everyone got out and stepped on the concrete driveway. “Your house is beautiful” said the owner. “Thank you” we all replied. Noodles got taken out of the truck. Then we removed her half-rusted cage out of the trunk out the truck and put it in our garage. Noodles was still greatly scared, so she tried running away but the owner had a great hold on her with her black harness and turquoise leash. We headed to the backyard and the owner said to Noodles “See they have a nice backyard for you to play.” We held Noodles while the owner went back to her truck to get treats, food, a collar, and her 2 bowls. Noodles was very muscular and strong, so we had to use a lot of force to hold her. When she came back, she gave us the stuff that belonged to Noodles. She took a picture and said her goodbyes both us and the dog, then left.
We let Noodles stay in the garage, in her cage because she did not want to come near us yet, so we gave so space while I did research on how to safest and easiest ways she could be as comfortable as possible. 30 minutes later we came back out to pet her and give her food and water. A week and a half and some incidents later she felt more at home, but she was still afraid of one of my brothers for no reason. She finally let us take her on walks, play with her, and pet her. Ten months later she is a beautiful, treasured member of our loving family .

Zori’s Wild Imagination

I am running. My feet take me off the ground. I fly, into the unknown, waiting for something to happen. I’m waiting for the fairies with the crystal wings. I’m waiting for the lions with the blue stripes. I’m waiting for me to fall, and realize this was a dream. But, no. I keep floating up, until I see a pink pool. Soon, I am swimming in what I think is an imaginary pool, high above the clouds. I get tired soon, so I swim back up to the surface, and try to push myself out of the pool. The weather is cold, and I don’t have a jacket. I look around, scanning the area, when a little fox walks up to me.

“Zaarvootost?” The fox says, holding her paw out. I guess she doesn’t speak english.
“Zaar zoo lost?” she says, her voice louder. Wait, she must be saying Are you lost?
I nod, and she helps me up out of the pool, and wraps me in a towel. Then, she walks to what looks like a little hut, and motions for me to come inside. I walk slowly, not sure what is in the house. Inside, there are all sorts of animals. Horses, Cats, Dogs, Fish, and so many more. I’m not sure whether to feel excited or worried.
The fox sits me down on a chair with a horse and places a bowl of stew in front of me. “Thank you” I say.
“Xeatupzoucookdungry” is what she says. It takes a minute to figure that one out but when I do, I nod and stuff a spoonful of stew in my mouth. I look at the fox, and ask her what her name is.
“Akatina, vand zis zis Jevi,” she says pointing to the horse.

I wonder how I got here, but I don’t question it. It’s so cool, and I’d rather be here than at home. After I’m done eating, Akatina leads me to the middle of the room, and calls out to the crowd of animals.
“Zevveryyyonne, vis is zaaiii zriend” she holds my hand up in the air, like I’m a champion at the Super Bowl. All the animals start clapping and cheering. A little turtle named Zabine asks what my name is.
“Zori Hangton” I reply, with a funny bow. This seems to get them very excited.
“ZOOKAY! ZOW SLEEZE VETURN TO ZORK!!” she says. Everyone returns to their various tasks, and I take a minute to look around. It looks SO COOL! Some people are cooking, and some are baking, while others are typing on a machine. Akatina walks away leaving me with Jevi.

“What is this place?” I ask Jevi, awestruck.
“This is the restaurant business of the world!” his big voice booming loudly.
“Wait, how does this work?” I ask. He looks at me strangely, but after I tell him I’m from Earth, he simply nods, and tells me about the many systems, and how the food gets down to Earth.I sit down on the bar stool, and take the sights in, when a thought hits my mind. Mom and Dad will be worried about me if I’m not at the school game, at 10:20. I excuse myself and run past the many animals, trying to find Akatina. As I’m looking, I bump into a little bunny, with soft white fur.

“Oh, I’m so sorry.” I say, lifting the bunny in my hands. He smiles, and says his name is Lavine, but to call him Lavi.
“I’m trying to find Akatina,” I say.
He shakes his head, and tells me that Akatina has gone to another place, and won’t be back till dusk.
I groan,“OH NO!! I Need to get home. Can you please help me?” I ask, my voice nervous.
“Of course. Where do you live?” he asks.
I tell him the address, and he nods, walking to a computer. He pinpoints the destination, and leads me back to the clouds.
“Now, Zori, jump right down here, and hold your breath. Be calm, and take this sticker. Do not take it off, not until you are safely home. Then, say Zavakavadavadoo, and it will turn into a magic book” said Lavi.
“Thank you so much Lavi!!! How do I come back?” I reply.

As I’m turning around to look at Lavi, I realize he has pushed me down, past the clouds! OH NO!!! I quickly hold my breath, and close my eyes, bracing myself for a fall. But after a minute, I realise I am back on the street, right where I started. I look around, hoping nobody has seen me.
“Zavakavadavadoo!!” I say, hoping this works. Instantly, the sticker changes to a book, with a red cover. The title is ‘The Zavakavadavadoo industry’. I couldn’t wait to read the book, but I knew that if I started reading, I’d be late. My watch reads 10:07 a.m, which means I have 13 minutes to get to the game. I run to the school, and make it just in time.
“How was the run?” my mom asks.
“Amazing, I’m going to go sit high up. The noise is too much.” I say.
I find a seat, and open the book. There were so many pictures, and I even find a baby picture of Akatina!! I read about the industry, and learned how Akatina’s great great grandparents started it. As I flip to the last page, I see some handwriting.

Dear Zori,
We hope you enjoyed your visit to Zavakavadavadoo. Please come visit. You can write to us, and if you ever do want to visit, go to the playground. Behind the slide, there is a patch of dirt, in grass. Push that, and say your name twice.
Love,
Akatina

How did Akatina know about the playground? Was this some secret service thing? Were they keeping tabs on me? I didn’t know, but I was so happy that day. I had made new friends, and I had my very own world.