Brain Waves

by Audrey Wick

flash fiction submissions

Her back pressed flat against the surgery table. Cocooned into position, a hive of activity swarmed around her, led by the neurosurgeon.

This wasn’t her first surgery with him. But it was her first time seeing him in glasses. What did that signify about his ability to see details? She closed her eyes and told herself not to worry about his Clark Kent frames. She lay still, giving herself to the hands of medical personnel that she hoped were skilled enough to successfully complete the task.

“Breath in.” The surgeon instructed in a hypnotic voice. “Hold it.” She did as she was told, petrified to perform any less than what was required of her.

“Don’t move.”

“Don’t swallow.”

“Don’t exhale.”

A warm liquid coursed through her femoral artery, from the top of her leg, through her torso, across the right side of her head, and into her brain. Technology captured images of her aneurysm, contained by platinum coils which had saved her life six months earlier.

“Good.” The surgeon was satisfied. “Now breathe.” She blew out hot air before readying to complete the process three more times.

Each time was important.

Each time was dangerous.

On the last two passes, flashes of bright, jagged lights painted the inside of her eyelids. A brilliant pattern of neuropathways lit themselves to her in unexplainable messaging. She had seen her own brain. And when the neurosurgeon announced the procedure’s ultimate success, she couldn’t speak for shock at the gift she had been given.

About Audrey Wick

Audrey Wick is a full-time professor of English at Blinn College in Texas. There, she is a writing teacher who writes, with four traditionally published novels from Tule Publishing. Audrey’s writing has also appeared in college textbooks published by Cengage Learning and W. W. Norton as well as in The Houston Chronicle, The Chicago Tribune, The Orlando Sentinel, and various literary journals. She believe the secret to happiness includes lifelong learning and good stories. But travel and coffee help. She has journeyed to over twenty countries—and sipped coffee at every one. Readers can connect with her at her writing website of, and on Twitter and Instagram @WickWrites.

Issue #15 June 2020

Maybe it was the challenge of flight, the opportunity to fly, the competition of summer camp and the inspiration and discipline of West Point. I think all of those things helped me to develop a dedication and inspired me to get ahead. – Buzz Aldrin

June 2020 Cover
Click to download your copy

Is it hot enough for you yet? Summer is the official start for sitting in the backyard, laptop in hand, and a nice sparkling water in the other. Time to enjoy these long days of summer by writing a good short story or personal essay!

Some will argue that summer flies by too quickly, and by some I mean the kiddos who are happy they don’t have any homework and can enjoy being outside all day. Other students would say it drags on and on because some activities get old after a while. That’s why writing is the best! Each time you sit down at the computer, it is a new adventure. You can begin in the middle of a chapter of your book, or change things up and write a bunch of short stories.

You’ll want to have a bunch of pieces on hand to submit to! While the year may be half over, there are still plenty of contests and anthologies to submit before the end of the year. Get inspired by reading what other winning writers are grilling up in their backyards these past few months. Then find a contest listed at the end of the magazine to submit to!

A few tips for when you are submitting to contests. Be sure to adhere to all the contests’ rules. Something that may seem unnecessary is so! Those reviewing pieces for contests only have so many hours in a day to read the hundreds of submissions they receive. Those who are super strict won’t even bother to read a piece if it is in the wrong format or doesn’t apply to the contests’ rules. This delays your time too because while you’re waiting to hear back from them, you could be submitting your piece to a magazine or contest that it is better suited for.

Keep in mind the cost to enter a contest. I like to first exhaust all the free contests there are to. Next, go after the ones that are cheap, no more than ten dollars. As a rule of thumb, I choose not to participate in contests that cost more than $20 no matter the winning prize of the contest. Too rich for my blood! Plus, as a personal preference, I rather have my piece published and not receive anything more than the satisfaction of being a published author!

So sit back, enjoy the summertime heat, and get to some reading and writing!

Dani & The Book Smuggler’s Den Community

Screen Shot 2019-04-16 at 10.16.39 AM


Rain and Pain, Eric D. Goodman
(Go) Round and Round, Brad Kelly
Branches Over the Stream, Barbara Milton
Elevator Pitch, Zach Murphy


We Now Return to Your Regularly Scheduled Program, Michelle Brooks

Book Reviews

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, Reviewed by Clea Dobrish
The End We Start From by Megan Hunter, Reviewed by Kelsie
Sunlit Imagery, Heartfelt Lament by William Heath, Reviewed by David Salner
The Greatest Love Story Ever Told by Megan Mullally & Nick Offerman,  Reviewed By Dani Watkins

Author Interviews

Let’s Chat with author and producer Lancelot Schaubert

Writing Contests

We Now Return to Your Regularly Scheduled Program

By Michelle Brooks


I tell you, I didn’t know
it would be like this, the past
a fever dream of endless days
that led to this version of myself,
a haunted house that I dare not
enter. I am what happens after
you break the glass in case
of an emergency. I am the thing
you bought, the one you imagine
you couldn’t live without it until
its possibility morphs into reproach.
You aren’t the only one who
keeps something because you
don’t know what to do with it.

About Michelle Brooks

Michelle Brooks has published a collection of poetry, Make Yourself Small, (Backwaters Press), and a novella, Dead Girl, Live Boy, (Storylandia Press). Her poetry collection, Pretty in A Hard Way, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2019. Her collection, The Pretend Life, was published by Atmosphere Press in February 2020. A native Texan, she has spent much of her adult life in Detroit.

Rain and Pain

By Eric D. Goodman


There were memories lodged in the corners of Ketchum’s mind that he’d rather not bring to light. He’d served as a marine in two wars. Did time in Iraq, then in Afghanistan. He’d killed men. People he’d known as friends had fallen at his side. Ketchum had seen terrible things. But he’d never experienced anything quite like this.

His watch read just past midnight, and already they’d shot down more than three dozen exotic animals. He’d personally shot bears, wolves, lions, cougars, tigers and leopards in those first several hours. Truth was, in some ways he’d rather be shooting people than these animals. At least people at war understood they were at war. These creatures were noble, just to look at them, and innocent. They didn’t ask to be put in this situation. They were draftees, so to speak.

But Ketchum was quick to remind himself that innocence was relative. The animals were designed to kill and eat. If he didn’t have a gun, and if he didn’t shoot the animals, no doubt these animals would be eating people. Ketchum knew that not one of the animals would think twice about eating his own guts out as he screamed for them to stop. Innocent? Not exactly. Just doing what God designed them to do.

“Oh, shit.” Chuck extended his hand to catch the droplets. “Just what we need.”

The rain began as a light drizzle, barely noticeable under the canopy of trees. They were in the woods, at the edge where the trees met the grass and the grass met Route 23. They hunted a tiger.

“The rain will make him harder to track,” Jackson said.

“Maybe we should get back to the car,” Chuck suggested. “Now that the tiger and animals have the advantage.”

“I don’t think so.” Ketchum spit out tobacco juice. “It’s just a little water. And we’re dealing with animals that are used to living in cages. Maybe we have the advantage.”

“Who has the advantage really just comes down to who takes who by surprise,” Jackson said. The animal expert looked nervous. Ketchum could see the rifle shaking in his hands. Or maybe Jackson was just cold, with the onset of the rain. Now it poured. 

“Then we better keep a careful watch.” Ketchum looked attentively about them. “Besides, we’re halfway to the rendezvous point by now. If we keep going, we’ll meet up with Roscoe sooner than we’d be able to get back to the vehicle.”

The rain grew heavier, pounding down through the branches. Ketchum imagined this must have been what it was like for Sammy Johnson in the jungles of Vietnam.

A snap echoed, a rustle from deep within the woods where the only thing they could see was darkness.

“What’s that?” Chuck asked. They all aimed their guns. 

Ketchum looked through the night vision goggles. “A deer,” he said. Everyone sighed. “Just a deer.”

It wasn’t until a moment after everyone let down their guard that Ketchum realized . . . maybe they shouldn’t have. He heard it before he saw it—a growl and the sound of branches breaking and leaves crunching, a body falling and bone cracking. They all looked back and saw the eyes reflecting. But the eyes were not looking at them; they were focused on the deer. The deer was on the ground, a tiger ripping at its flesh.

Jackson—animal activist though he may be—was the first to fire toward the shadows. Chuck and Ketchum fired, too. It angered the tiger, and the large cat ran in their direction. They could see it clearer now that it had come closer, rain soaking its fur, falling onto its face. They fired again, and it fell, just like the deer behind it. The deer seemed a needless kill, the meat uneaten. 

“That’s one more.” The way Ketchum saw it, the tiger was a needless kill, too.

“Yup,” Chuck agreed. None of them seemed very happy about their progress.

They heard another crackling in the woods. It came from in front of them. Startled, their raised their weapons. Ketchum peered through the goggles. “It’s Roscoe.” They all sighed. 

“That you, Chuck?” Roscoe asked. 

“Yup,” Chuck called back. 

The men came together. Roscoe greeted them “Leland and me got us a bobcat back a ways. Sounds like you got something, too.”

Regret burdened Jackson’s voice. “A Bengal.” 

Leland sighed. “It’s a shame.” The rain poured down on Leland’s leather fedora so hard that the heavy brim drooped, adding to his sad appearance. Leland put a hand on Jackson’s back, water splashing off and hitting Ketchum in the face. “A necessary shame.” 

Chuck and Roscoe nodded, their heads hanging like the water-heavy tree limbs all around them.

“Guess so.” Jackson looked Leland in the eye. 

Ketchum pushed through the two animal experts. “Don’t make me cry. We’ve got us more cat to kill.” But the truth was, the scene even penetrated Ketchum’s hard shell. 

The rain splattered loudly on and around them. Ketchum spoke, just to get everyone’s minds off of the tiger and bobcat and all the other kills. “I remember a kid in Afghanistan.”

“Here we go, another war story,” Chuck cracked. But Ketchum knew Chuck didn’t mean it.

“This kid had an animal, did he?” Jackson asked.

“No, it ain’t an animal story. Got enough of those here.” Ketchum spoke only loud enough for the guys to hear, in a hushed voice. He remained focused on their surroundings, alert to any animals. “So, anyway, while I was over there, I used to go to a local market where I knew a kid I’d buy nuts and fruits from. Freshly shelled almonds, walnuts, pistachios and sun-dried apricots and dates. Got my fill of military food at camp. But, you know, that got old. Besides, I liked trying out the local favorites when I was overseas, and getting face to face with local people—the people we were there to protect.” Ketchum felt a little silly now. Truth was, he only went there because they sent him. He only joined because he didn’t know what else to do. 

“Anyway, this kid who sold me the fruit and nut mixes . . .” Ketchum spit.

“What was his name?” Leland asked.

“I never got the kid’s name. Would you guys shut up and let me tell the story?”

“Well, hurry up and tell it,” Roscoe said.

“The boy was probably about fifteen, sixteen years old. His parents owned the business, I guess, whether they farmed the food themselves or bought it from a local wholesaler, whether they owned the stall where they sold their goods or rented it or just occupied it. I don’t really know how the system worked. I just bought the damn snacks from the kid.”

The rain continued to patter against their hats and shoulders, their guns and noses. As Ketchum talked in his calm voice, they all watched cautiously for signs of animals. They knew a tiger and cheetah still waited for them in here, at least—a tiger and cheetah had been spotted and called in by residents in the area, in addition to the tiger and bobcat they already shot. Ketchum’s muted story served as their background music, but their eyes remained alert as they looked in all directions for their prey.

“So one day, there’s a battle, and I’m there in the thick of it, and who do I see facing me down with a machine gun at his side?”

“The kid,” Roscoe guessed.

“The kid,” Ketchum confirmed. “The look on his face—I could see it clear as day—when he saw me, it was just confusion and shock. He was about to kill me, I know it—if it had been any other guy, he would have shot me dead right then and there. But I guess he felt like he knew me, so he turned and starting shooting at other guys. But these guys were my buddies and my brothers, and I couldn’t let him do it. So I did what I had to do. I took him out.”

“That’s raw,” Chuck said.

More raw than Chuck could understand. Ketchum had felt the boy’s eyes on him, had known that if he’d looked into the boy’s eyes again, he would have had to let the boy go. Let him go to kill his friends and brothers. Ketchum didn’t just take out the boy. He took out the boy’s dumbfounded stare. Watched numbly as the boy’s face exploded in blood, one pleading eye blown away, the other left lifeless. The boy fell onto the dusty ground, blood oozing from where his eye had been and clumping the sand beneath him.

“I felt like I betrayed the kid. But that’s plain stupid, because he was just some kid who sold nuts and fruits, not a friend or anything. But he spared my life, and I didn’t spare his.”

“He was killing your allies,” Jackson said. “You were just doing what you had to.”

Ketchum stopped walking and looked Jackson square in the eye. “Exactly.”

Jackson took a step back from Ketchum’s intense stare and nodded. Ketchum looked at Leland. Leland turned his gaze into the dark of the rainy forest. Ketchum shook the rain off his cap and moved forward.

With the help of night vision binoculars, Leland picked up the trail of the cheetah. The tracks left in the mud were now paw-shaped puddles, trampled grass and leaves and sticks. They followed the trail, and before long, they found the cheetah deeper in the woods—although these woods were not deep, cut away by freeways and housing developments. They found the cheetah crouching under the cover of trees. It didn’t attack them, perhaps thinking it could go undetected, or hoping it would be left alone. Or, more likely, waiting for the right moment to catch one of them off guard and pounce. 

Ketchum could see the cheetah’s eyes; they pleaded for mercy. Chuck and Roscoe opened fire. Blood exploded on the cheetah’s neck, shoulder and back, between his right eye and ear. From where Ketchum stood, he could see what was left of the cheetah’s remaining eye, lifeless. Ketchum and Roscoe and Jackson and Chuck and Leland stood over the dead cheetah. The rain washed blood off its coat and onto the muddy leaves. 

The others cursed the rain, but Ketchum didn’t mind it. He wished it would stop, but knew that it could be far worse. Ketchum remembered being in the desert, in the scorching heat of the yellow sun, the dry sand, always thirsty, praying against all odds for just a little bit of rain, rain that would never come. He remembered thinking, then, that he wished he could trade Afghanistan for Vietnam, trade the dry, harsh desert for the lush green jungle. It didn’t occur to him—during the war—to wish for trading war for peace. He just wanted to trade one set of surroundings for another. Even now, Ketchum realized he would never really know what it was like in Vietnam, not the way Sammy Johnson did, not the way countless others did during that long and drawn-out conflict. But he imagined now, as they trudged through the muddy ground in the trees under the heavy rain, that maybe this was something like Vietnam. Maybe this was how it was, to be at war surrounded by water and leaf, tree and mud. And he realized that it was not better. It was different, and that was all. War was war. And however you looked at it, wherever you stood—in desert sand or muddy jungle—war was bullshit.

“Bagged us a cheetah,” Ketchum said with gusto. He brought himself back to the moment. “Add that to the running tally. What’s next, Siberian tiger?”

Ketchum talked tough in front of the guys—just who he was. But when he looked into the face of the dead cheetah and saw the one remaining eye, he remembered the boy’s eyes. That look of raw shock, of betrayal, the look that asked, Why are you shooting me when I spared you? A look he didn’t even think was real, not one that he saw with his own eyes, anyway. But he couldn’t be sure. Is it something I saw for a split second, or just something imagined that I’ll remember for years? Does it make a difference? 

The dispatcher came over the Sheriff’s radio. “Roscoe?”

“What is it, Delores?”

“Lions spotted in the city, north side. And a woman reported missing, no body found.”

“Send Tom and Toby.”

“They’re already downtown with Morris on another call. Some giant cat—weren’t sure whether it was a tiger or a lion.”

“All right.” Roscoe looked at the men. “Jackson, you think you’ll be able to find the other tiger?”

“Not sure, but I can keep trying.”

“Good.” Roscoe nodded. “How you doing, Ketchum?”

“Just dandy.” Ketchum cracked a smile. “Ready to shoot me a Siberian.”

“All right.” Roscoe put a hand on Ketchum’s wet shoulder. “You two stay here and see if you can track down the Siberian. Leland, Chuck, why don’t we go look for those lions.”

They agreed. Roscoe, Leland and Chuck wished Ketchum and Jackson luck and headed forward in the direction of the car. Tom and Toby and Morris must have been downtown by now, hunting the urban jungle for a giant cat. It wasn’t long after they split up that Jackson found the remains of a monkey in the muddy brush. Nearby, the imprint of a cat where it had rested in the leaves and dirt, feeding. Then, paw prints.

“At least it already ate,” Ketchum said.

“That’s something,” Jackson admitted. “But not enough to rest easy on. A Siberian tiger is the largest cat in the wild. It can eat a lot of meat. That chimp was just an appetizer.”

“Good to know.” Ketchum made light of the fear that held them together. The leaves made it slippery in the wet mud underfoot. Ketchum wondered whether hunting the Siberian in his natural habitat might be more fitting. To snowshoe through the white terrain in search of the orange-and-black-striped prey.

Ketchum suspected the climate would have its own miseries. Numb fingers and toes. That terrible feeling of cold flesh against metal. Shivers in the frigid air. Rain or shine, sand or mud, snow or clear skies, there seemed no such thing as perfect weather for war. 

In the darkness ahead, they heard a rustling of leaves, a deep growl. Eyes reflected the moonlight back to them. They found the tiger. There was no denying the cat’s eyes, boring into him, asking for mercy. The tiger remained in the brush, crouched in a defensive position. The tiger looked confused, unsure, as though all it really wanted was to go home. Ketchum and Jackson readied their assault rifles. Swallowing the gut-wrenching sensation, Ketchum aimed right into the boy’s pleading eyes and fired.

About Eric D. Goodman

Eric D. Goodman is the author of four books, including Tracks: A Novel in Stories (Atticus, 2011) and Womb: a novel in utero (Merge, 2017). “Rain and Pain” is an excerpt from his new novel, Setting the Family Free (Apprentice House, 2019). Learn more about Eric and his writing at

Branches Over the Stream

By Barbara Milton


Claire, a senior pre-med, no longer reads the Times.  The stories are too big, too far away.  What can she do about all that bad news?  She’s taken to reading the local newspaper instead.  She used to skip the obits, but now she scans those as well, looking for people who died young, noting the illnesses that led to their deaths. About a month ago she noticed that a pretty Puerto Rican woman had died at thirty-two “after a long illness.”  When Matt told her Ramon’s mother had died, Claire recalled the face of the woman.

Matt is also pre-med and, though only a freshman, the co-chair of Claire’s Ecology Club. The two received a grant to lead an after-school program called “Schoolyard Ecology” at a middle school in the city.  Ramon is Matt’s favorite student.  On the first day of the program, when the others were looking at living things, Ramon ran around picking up bottles and cans and trading them for Fritos at the corner store.  He slipped back into the group before Claire saw he was missing. 

He’s the only kid Jim let’s climb a tree and handle a saw to cut off dead branches. Jim is a landscape architect. He looks like Santa. He consults on the project and the kids call him Grandpa.  He wants to take them on a field trip to his woods in the country where he intends, one day, to build his dream home. For now he’s content to explore the landscape, climbing up a small hill to take in the big picture and crouching to finger the rotting leaves on the ground.  

In the schoolyard he discusses different species of trees. The kids had never noticed there were any trees. Now they talk about them as if they were friends and trim them and prune them and look for wounds in their bark.

On the day of the field trip, Jim rose at six in the morning to clear a trail through the woods for the children.  He designed it to wind past a dead possum, cross over a stream, pierce through a stand of old sugar maples and hardwoods, up the side of a waterfall and down to a bear track, ending up in a space Jim has cleared for his house. The weather forecast is cold. 

Matt and Claire leave the school at 2:30. Claire takes the six girls in her station wagon. Matt takes the six boys in a van.  They both know mixing genders would have created no problems but the father of one of the girls wouldn’t let her ride with a man.  

Claire laughs at the father referring to Matt as a man—the kind that would threaten someone, even a child–but Matt takes the man’s comment in stride, he has bigger things to worry about. Before he can leave the city, he has to get Victor’s mother’s permission. Their apartment is on the corner where one fourteen-year old shot another and if Matt knows anything it’s that he doesn’t want to get shot.  What he does want is to get into Medical School. He took on this project because he will need the money but also because he wanted to help.  Now, he thinks, he could help more in a hospital letting the poor come to him.  He wants to berate Victor, the plumpest, youngest kid in the group, for not getting his mother to sign the permission slip, but he restrains himself and Victor runs into his building. 

At a quarter past three Claire and the girls pull into Jim’s driveway.  Jim is waiting on the edge of the woods. Mary, a volunteer to the program, pulls in behind Claire and takes off her helmet and shakes out her gray waist-length hair. Her motorcycle is big and red and her enormous blue eyes express concern then delight.  She’s brought a duffle filled with shoes, boots and gloves, and the girls, in their flimsy flats, grab whatever they can.

Claire says she’ll wait for the van, while Jim and Mary take the girls into the woods. At the edge of the woods, the girls pick out their walking sticks, which they first use to poke a dead possum. 

Standing on a rock the size of a sea turtle, Claire has plenty of time to imagine terrible things: the van being shot at on the way out of the neighborhood; an accident somewhere on the highway. She calls Matt on his cell phone, but he doesn’t answer so Claire starts praying. She is not willing to give up her usual bargaining chips—chocolate for a year, a month, or a week, so she tries to put her fears in perspective.  She often fills waiting time with thoughts of disasters, yet not once have the dreaded moments occurred. So she lets her worry run into rage at Matt and his current incompetence. He’s always so clumsy—physically, emotionally–and he pays no attention to details. She should have helped him decipher Jim’s map but she was in such a hurry to get the kids into the woods, where she was certain they would be transformed. 

Now, for the first time, the responsibility hits her.  What will she do if the van doesn’t show up? Will she go back to school and wait for it there?  How will she tell the principal that she lost six of his children?  How will she tell the parents she lost one of their sons?  The school will be closed by the time she gets back. The parking lot will be dark. It’s a terrible neighborhood.

She thinks about the string of events leading up to this moment.  How hard she and Matt worked to raise the money for the program. They wrote and re-wrote and re-wrote the proposal. They found Jim, a professional, willing to work for a pittance. They brought in Mary, who had taught in the schools. They finagled an interview with a foundation for funds. They pushed the program though a logistical nightmare after which, not one kid signed up.  

So she and Matt set out to promote it, visiting classrooms, passing out candy.  Some kids came, some left, they got more.  To reward those who stayed, they promised a field trip and made up permission slips for parents to sign. 

“I’m going to have to sign it myself,” Ramon said.

“Why’s that?” Claire asked.

“My parents are dead.”

Claire remembered what Matt had already told her and the photo of the Puerto Rican woman who died.  And the crisp white shirt Ramon wore the day of the funeral. He had skipped school but come to the program with the obit in his pocket in case the Principal caught him. 

He seemed eager to participate that day and when she asked the children to imitate something from nature, he hammered the air and growled out peals of thunder. But as the hammering and growling grew fiercer, Claire stepped in with a new activity. She passed out slips of paper for the children to vote on which plants they would put in the schoolyard. Then she gave them some options.

“And don’t look at each other’s paper!” she said. “We want lots of variety.”  

While she was talking, Ramon was playing with textbooks.  He turned one upside down and raised its spine toward the ceiling. He added another behind it creating a tunnel that he shoved his arm through, then in and out of. Matt, who was standing behind him, asked if the other kids found Ramon distracting. When they said yes, Matt reached over Ramon’s shoulder and, rather violently, swept the books to the floor.

They were large, hard-covered books and the noise startled everyone. Claire was stunned. On this day of all days. The kids looked scared as if one of them might be next. Matt’s face flamed up in red blotches, but he recovered enough to touch Ramon’s shoulder as he tried to launch a whole new discussion. 

The group wasn’t interested in having a discussion. They yelled at Matt and told him he was wrong. Only Ramon sat perfectly still, focusing on his hands tightly clasped on the table. In a soft controlled voice, without being defensive, Ramon explained he’d been making a tent to keep his vote secret.

At a quarter to four, the van turns onto Jim’s road.  Matt drives past Claire and parks next to her Highlander.  Victor bursts out of the van looking dizzy and green.  He throws up in some bushes, then bolts into the woods and all the boys, except Ramon, dash in behind him.  Ramon, strutting proudly in his new rubber boots, brings up the rear while Claire hangs back waiting for an explanation from Matt, who scurries past her to catch up with the children.

Jim had laid branches over the trickling stream in an effort to keep the kids’ shoes somewhat dry, but Ramon marches right through the water.  “Look guys!  They’re waterproof!”

Jim stands next to a sugar maple on the other side of the stream. Its gray bark crumbles like powder but thirty feet up is a huge hunk of sap that had seeped out last winter and frozen. “Maple syrup,” Jim says, before moving on to the hemlocks, where he turns over a branchlet exposing fuzzy white insects nestled in between needles. “The wooly adelgid,” he explains, “is a hitchhikers from Japan, where it isn’t a problem. But in America it has no natural predators, so nothing can stop it from killing the hemlocks.” The children look at him sadly and then at the trees.

To lighten the mood, Jim nods at the skunk cabbage, chubby bulbs ready to spring up from the swamp. “You can eat them at this stage and they’re delicious but cooking them stinks up the whole house.” Further into the forest, Jim points out a shagbark hickory, whose trunk has to stretch out along the ground in order to get a piece of the sun. 

And next comes the waterfall, lined with gray boulders, each a little bit shorter than the boys scrambling up them.  As they reach the top, girls spring out from the forest and three of them run to catch up with the boys. A fourth, Ebony, who is large and heavy with a face full of bruises, follows more slowly with Mary. Two other girls, arm in arm, fall further behind.

While Jim leads the nimbler girls along the edge of a waterfall, Mary tries to get Ebony to climb the first boulder. “Put one foot here,” Mary says, but Ebony can’t move. Mary lifts Ebony’s left foot toward a crevice while supplying a shoulder for the girl’s trembling hand.  Then, with a big boast, she gets Ebony onto the boulder where Ebony is terrified that any movement at all might tip her over and into the waterfall.

The other climbers tumble down and run past her and Jim follows them into the woods. Matt and Claire stay close to Ebony while Mary goes to check on the arm-in-arm girls, who are now leaning over a fallen log. 

Claire leaves Matt and walks toward the girls, who seem to be throwing up. But it’s worse than that: one is gasping for air.

“Asthma,” Mary says softly.

The women sit the two girls on the log.  Marquisa and Jennifer could be twins, slight and pretty with similar ponytails. Marquisa is shivering. Her socks are wet. Mary offers to trade those with her own.  First Jennifer bends down to pull Marquisa’s boots off—one of two pairs Mary brought in her bag–then she peels the damp socks from her friend’s damp feet and gives them to Claire who hands them to Mary who passes a dry purple pair back via Claire.  To keep Marquisa’s feet warm during the transition, Jennifer covers them with her scarf.  Marquisa can barely breathe.

Claire, also shivering, tries to pull the dry socks over Marquesa’s damp feet but the socks do not slide easily.

“And how about your boots?” Mary says to Marquisa.  “They must be wet, too.  Why don’t you take mine.”

Even after this trade, Marquisa can’t talk, which doesn’t stop Jennifer who says, “Let’s climb the waterfall.”

Claire suggests that Jennifer climb the waterfall by herself, but Jennifer insists she will not leave Marquisa.  So Marquisa, the victim of her friend’s undying loyalty, sets out up the hill, her arm draped over Jennifer, Jennifer’s arm around Marquisa’s waist.

Ebony is still stuck by the waterfall. Matt walks back and forth on the ground. Mary climbs the boulder to help Ebony get down.  Jennifer scuttles past Mary and calls on Marquisa to join her.  Marquisa, still silent, looks close to fainting.  Claire tells Jennifer to go up alone, they will watch her, but adds, “Marquisa stays here.”

With no protest from Marquisa, Jennifer bolts up to the top.  Ebony stands motionless, still glued to the boulder, but looks casually sideways as if she’s just pausing. Soon Jennifer scuttles down again to rejoin Marquisa and, wrapped up together, they stumble into the woods.  

Meanwhile, Matt gives inch-by-inch directions as to to the placement of Ebony’s feet. Mary does the same for Ebony’s hands.  Claire leaves to help Jim with the others. Ebony hasn’t moved an iota.

At the end of the trail, the children are sitting on stumps.  Ramon’s feet are freezing.  His boots aren’t waterproof after all. Jim’s wife has brought donuts and a large canteen of hot chocolate.  The children are gleeful and cannot stop talking.  The woods contain all their fears and elations, unlike the classroom, which hasn’t room for so many. Claire looks at her watch. It’s time to head home.

Then, quietly, Ebony emerges out of the forest, followed by Matt, who is followed by Mary.

“Guess what we saw,” Matt says, coming up to the kids with little brown balls in his hands.  “Signs of a deer.”  He’d been thinking of a way to slip Ebony in without notice, when he came across the scat—aha!

And just as the children finish the hot chocolate and donuts, Victor bursts out of the forest. Claire’s eyes go up, almost into her forehead–she can’t blame this one on Matt. The children yell that Victor missed the hot chocolate. He doesn’t care.  He can get that at home.

When everyone grabs their things and the children go ahead with Mary and Jim, Matt and Claire follow behind.  Claire asks Matt what made him so late.

“Nothing,” said Matt.  “I just got lost.”

“I should have spent more time with you explaining the map.” 

“That wasn’t it. I got lost. I wasn’t paying attention.  The kids were great though.  After all that driving around in circles, not one of them gave me a hard time. But I do feel terrible. They had so little time in the woods to begin with. Sometimes it feels like I do everything wrong.”

“You’re doing a lot right.  The deer scat was brilliant—bringing Ebony in on the discovery, making her feel so important, distracting the kids so she could slide into the group” 

“Yeah, but you know what was really awesome?” Matt voice now sounds happy.  “None of the kids were going to say anything, anyway.”

Mary and the children stand in the clearing where Jim will one day build his house. She has found a piece of quartz, which she puts in Jennifer’s hand, which is buried in Mary’s now dirty white glove.  The sun breaks through the canopy and lands on a facet, sparking a sudden though short-lived orange flame. Jennifer drops the quartz and Mary picks it up again, rotating it slowly to reveal its transparency, its crystalline structure, how the parts join together.

On their ways home Matt decides he WILL be a doctor. Claire thinks maybe she’d rather teach. Mary wonders whether she could adopt Ramon—not could she legally but could she emotionally. Six years ago she killed a child backing her car out of the driveway. And Ramon? He is certain that whatever he does, he’ll make lots of money and buy a motorcycle like Mary’s, which he had spent some time stroking, before climbing into the van.

About Barbara Milton

Barbara Milton has published three stories in the Paris Review, one of these stories won a Pushcart Prize and was also published in the Pushcart anthology, LOVE STORIES FOR THE TIME BEING. Milton’s writing has also been featured in JuxtaProse, the North American Review, the Apalachee Quarterly, The Adirondack Review, and several other literary magazines. Three of these stories were also nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her prize for winning the Word Beat Press award was a collection of her stories in the chapbook, A Small Cartoon, and she recently won first prize in the Winning Writers Short Story Contest.

Elevator Pitch

By Zach Murphy


Troy stepped into a crowded elevator on the way up to his apartment. It was the type of “crowded” where you don’t even have enough room to reach into your pockets to grab your headphones. Troy would’ve usually waited for the next round because he wasn’t a huge fan of the awkward silence that tends to arise in elevators, but he was really anxious to get home and plop into bed.

It’d been a weird week. Troy had to put his beloved dog Bagel down, and he wasn’t going to get over it anytime soon, if ever. On the flip side, his manager finally gave him a raise. It wasn’t much for filling out spreadsheets all day, but it made Troy’s curiously escalating monthly cable bill look a little less jarring. TV was one of the only things that could possibly cheer him up.

Troy tried not to make eye contact with anyone in the elevator. It was moments like these when he wished he could speed up time. Or teleport.

“It’s a beautiful day out there,” said a voice from the corner.

Sometimes the small talk was even more painful than the silence. Troy wondered why someone would choose to bring up the weather while in an elevator, of all places. You’re inside of a tiny room — inside of another room — inside of a building.

It was also impossible not to overhear the phone conversations transpiring around him.

To the right, a woman seemed to be ranting to someone about a sour breakup with a friend. “At least I don’t have to pretend to like coffee anymore,” she quipped.

To the left, there was a man in a suit carrying an unkempt box of office supplies while speaking into his Bluetooth device. He seemed to be having some sort of breakdown. “They completely blindsided me,” he said. “I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do now.”

Maybe the stock market plummeted again.

In front of Troy, there were a pair of teenagers that smelled of smoke and looked higher than the 15th floor. They weren’t talking, though. Just scrolling.

Behind Troy, someone was planning a Friday night celebration. “Bring the good champagne,” they said. “This is monumental.”

As the people all eventually dispersed to their respective floors and went off on their own ways, Troy stood there as the last person in the elevator. He suddenly felt a ringing sense of loneliness. And much to his surprise, he somehow missed the strangers that he was surrounded by for a few minutes.

During the final ascension to his floor, Troy thought about the ups and downs of life, what his future would hold or not hold, and just how empty his apartment felt without his beloved dog Bagel.

When Troy exited the elevator and got to the door of his apartment, he reached into his pockets and realized that he accidentally left his headphones in his car.

About Zach Murphy

Zach Murphy is a Hawaii-born writer who somehow ended up in the often chilly but charming land of St. Paul, Minnesota. His stories have appeared in Peculiars Magazine, Ellipsis Zine, Emerge Literary Journal, The Bitchin’ Kitsch, WINK, and the Wayne Literary Review. He lives with his wonderful wife Kelly and loves cats and movies.

(Go) Round and Round

By Brad Kelly


As she ate her sugary cereal, during her grand rebellion against dolls and the scabbiest knees of her life, Talia remembered the people she knew from a time before all this. A mother distant-eyed and radiant and hilarious—the one she lived with now tyrannical and peevish—and a father much like this one, rough-handed and simple and kind. And memories of a forested skyline imposed over the sparse backyard she saw from her bedroom window. And her neck aching at night and this stooping her over through the day until she held a tiny, private space at her chest, where she kept her past life as if safe in a heavy locket. No one believed her. Not mom or dad, not the doctor or her friends. Her life up till now like a glacial calving, like a tremendous mountain of ice splitting up…

Between cities, the country groaned under its own weight. Talia thought of it as a vast theater after the curtain has dropped—quiet and empty and echoing as they trundled across it very small and slow. Sometimes there were hills or a stand of trees far off the road as if painted on the backdrop, sometimes the rocks and rivers were practically under their wheels.

She didn’t sleep well on the bus. She’d nod out for an hour or two in the cramped seat and then they’d hit a bump that stabbed her with the armrest, or a siren would flood by, or a child would begin to scream. Always a moment of uncertainty about where she was, a landscape passing by with no reference in the wildly inaccurate map in her head. The skies were gray, as they’d been the entire trip, but she could tell it was the morning by a whiteness in the light and the taste in her mouth.
Beside her, in the aisle seat, sat a creature that must have slipped aboard in the night. He was forty-something going on sixty and pieces were beginning to fall off. His rail-thin arms were like prosthetics jutting from his sleeveless T and his shoulder-length hair, composed of mostly ash and a few sun-faded beads, partially hid a disfigured ear. He looked at Talia with pea-soup eyes, smiling secretively with slimy teeth. His name was Gary, she guessed, but he’d changed it to Moon or Zap or Lake Trout.

“You look like my daughter when you’re sleeping,” he said. “She fourteen now, how old are you?”

The plan was to make the entire trip without saying a word. But in her travels so far, Talia had come to understand that she’ll be next to this man all day. If she didn’t respond now, the awkwardness would swell up like a balloon. It is how the woman who claims to be her mother would handle the situation, though. She’d sit stiff-lipped and fume and then gab bitterly about this seatmate to her friends for the next three weeks. Still, Talia felt she’d rather let a fart squeak through, or a garlicky burp, than say anything that might expose her.

“I’m twenty—”

“She fourteen. Going to see her. First time on the same side of glass since she was too young to know who I was.”

“Prison?” Talia asked. She had never met anyone who’d been in prison. She tried to sink through the fabric of the seats.
“Almost twelve years. Not sure if I was ready, but some point they gotsta let you go. Bar fight. Could have happened to anyone.”

“I’ve never been in a bar fight.”

“That’s ‘coz you full of love, dear,” he said, reaching into the tiny private space at her chest to point at her heart. She froze tight. “I’m working on that. Got all the hate almost out of me.”

The bus began to climb with a strained rumble down in its bowels. Up out of the flats and into the hills.

“Where you headed?” he asked.

She had pored over maps in recent years, seeking a name that struck her, googling images of places for something that resonated. She had died as a child and never knew, or nearly forgot the irrelevancy in the bardo, the word that meant her real home.

“Oregon,” she said, timidly, a shake to it. “The Dalles?”
“Oh. . .ways to go yet.”

Four rows behind them, and on the other side of the aisle, a young woman whistled a three note tune.

“Guuuuuaaaood morning!” she said. “This is Vonda Carlson, your host for Transcontinental Today. Today on Today, we’ll be talking with passenger 11A, plus news and weather, and I’ve got a fantastic fall pie recipe your family will go bananas over. Outside, it’s about 54 degrees, and we’ve got a day of clouds and rocks and wind. Be sure to stay hydrated folks, whether you’re eating a bag of pretzels for breakfast or just staring out the window.”

Talia walked past Vonda during the show once, on her way to the overflowing toilet, and watched for a moment as this thirtyish woman with a smart navy blazer and a blonde hairdo she’d glazed into a power-lunch helmet spoke into her mobile like a microphone with a meteorologist’s accent. She’d been working her way up to row 10, where Talia sat. No one has refused to chat with her.

“As you know, Transcontinental Today is dedicated to bringing you candid interviews with your fellow passengers. If you know a story you’d like us to cover, please stop by row 14 and meet with our producer—Vonda Carlson!”

Talia put in headphones. She’d been listening to a book on tape about Buddhism because they were the ones that believed in reincarnation. It didn’t make much sense to her, though some of the lines were beautiful and a few of the words made her feel a little less afraid. She wanted a technical explanation, the wisdom of someone who knew what she knew but could put names to it and tell her how to find her real home. Within moments, the battery died and the tiny screen went blank. She thonked out the earbuds in a huff, wrapped them up, jammed them into her bag.

“Hey, young lady,” Gary Moon said. “Anything to eat?”


At dinner, squeezing ketchup for the meatloaf: “You’re not my real parents. Why don’t you tell me where my real parents are?”

Her mother: “You leave and you can’t come back. Walkout that fucking door and that’s the second I stop worrying about your stupid ass.”

Crying: “You’re scaring me. Do you hear that Talia? You’re scaring us and all we ever wanted was to—”

Packing the bag that now lives at her feet: “If I lie about this even once, it’ll be like I never believed it in the first place.”


She’d brought some hygiene products and a couple changes of clothes, a grocery bag of dwindling snacks tied up like Chinese take-out. In the front pocket, she had a notebook half-full of memories from back then: images and smells and moments that had appeared fully-formed in her head. There were two hundred dollars—a gift from ‘Dad’—hidden in the tongue of her shoe. She did not bring anything of sentiment but some music on the player and a few stains on her clothes.

Talia gave Gary Moon a package of honey roasted cashews and split her frosted cinnamon bun in half. Something about being on the road made her want to eat nothing but sugar and salt. She managed the hand-over steady at the controls, undilutedly herself, but it was like she could still feel the finger that pointed at her heart, accusing her of a subterfuge and a holding back his words taken honestly did not speak. Gary Moon ate the nuts peckishly and then poured the remnants into his grimy paw and tossed them into his mouth.

“They say my daughter got diabetes. Has to stick a needle in her arm every day.”
Talia imagined a syringe stabbing through her skin, a tiny periscope probing her interior. Gooseflesh pebbled her arm.

“Say she fearless about it. Say she doesn’t think twice. Eight years old, don’t need no help. I say it ain’t a good thing to not be afraid of. You ever try heroin?”

“You know. . .not really.”

Gary chuckled at this like she’d never tried ice cream, never kissed a boy. He tossed his half of the cinnamon bun in his mouth, chewed it once or twice, and swallowed the whole thing like a big, gooey pill. Talia moved to put the earbuds back in, hoping that even with Gary Moon’s twelve years of stonehouse isolation he’d take this as a sign to keep to himself.

“So what you tripping on?” he asked, still smacking his lips.

“Excuse me?”

“White folks would say it: ‘And what’s the reason for your trip, ma’am?’”

Talia looked back through the space between seats, trying to glimpse Vonda Carlson. Passenger 11A was telling her about a car wash her nephew owns and the job she’ll have when she arrives. “Been looking for work a long time,” said 11A.
“Did you try the last place you left it?” Vonda asked, a cheerful, morning-voiced jibe.

Talia fought back a shivering and looked out the window to slip from under Gary’s muddy eyes. Clouds, rocks, a cloud-dense sky. Just as Vonda had said.

“Funeral. . .birthday. . .headed to see your great aunt Tilly before she passes from this vale?”

“You. . .you wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Oh, sister. . . I can believe all kinds of things on a day like today.”


She wouldn’t touch his thingie no matter what he said. Gross and wrong and the pit in her stomach that was partly wanting to do it. She was allowed to say no, that much she knew. And apparently he was allowed to push her into the gulch, her head was allowed to strike a rock and the three vertebrae of her neck were allowed to pop in quick succession like ripping off buttons. And she was also allowed to lie there blinking a long time. More moments than simply one as the darkening blur seeped in. And her father was allowed to rush to the rim up there and pull at his hair and scream. And then the light, the slow-pulsing crystal of her hereness, was allowed to flood from her all at once.


A truck stop in a flat town so wind-torn the ramshackle buildings leaned to the east. Buying fried drumsticks and mozzarella sticks in a cardboard tray and Gary angling for a bite like a courteous vulture. She blew the dust from her can of orange soda and watched the day burning off out at its fringe, dusk coming over the hills like locusts. Back on the bus with three hours until another stop, maybe four. She looked out the window for something in the way of things, and as night grew she found a solace out there in the star-paled space between rocks, in imagined lean-tos hidden from the road where she could live until her grocery bag of snacks ran out and it got cold. She had not counted on the loneliness and confinement of this trip, the way one insulates the other. She’d thought the nervousness and withdrawal would cease and she’d glide across these vast roads knowing exactly who she is.

Gary Moon slept with an impressive dexterity and depth. She almost admired it, the way he fell out of consciousness like a rock into a bucket. The afternoon had proved him harmless, entertaining even, and now that he was out she sympathized with him. Felt something cold and flat like sadness.

“WHOOOMF. . .wuddawuddawuddawuddaWHOOMF.”

It was Vonda Carlson again, introducing her hard-hitting evening program “Realities with Vonda Carlson,” a mix of feature-style reporting on phenomena from Vonda’s life—the dangers of gluten, discrimination against childless women, a purported expose on the dubious benefits of her current medication—and pressing interviews with passengers slightly less lucky than those in the seat beside them. Soon, it will be Talia in the hot seat; no one has refused yet. Even the eight year old in row 14 came on Realities and divulged his goblin-like penchant for eating marshmallow cream out of the jar with his bare hands. Even Cowboy Bob had a misty-eyed moment talking about his Stage 3 mother. Talia scanned ahead for openings near the front.

Vonda Carlson asked passenger 11A how her life had changed since the divorce, whether she felt she could ever love again, what would become of the child she’d left with the father back in Ohio. Talia’s real father lived somewhere near the woods. His worn hands would tussle her hair and then set it straight again—curly then, the sun shining off it like copper. He would take her round to all the things growing in their yard with his big hand enveloping hers. He would tell her the name of every cloud.


“But you’re my damn daughter,” he said. “I was there. . .”

And eavesdropped through late-night walls. Aunt Dorie, Mom: “Maybe she’s right. I tell you what, that girl wasn’t my idea.” “Oh, come on.” “It’s not enough I lie to her I’m supposed to lie to you, too?”

To Cassie: “I just want you to believe me. You’re my friend, we’re supposed to be on each other’s side.”


“Guuuuuaaaood morning! This is Vonda Carlson, your host for Transcontinental Today. Today on Today, we’ll be talking with passenger 10B, plus news and weather, and I’ve got an inventive new use for all those cigarette butts that will blow your mind. Outside, it’s about 52 degrees, but the forecast today calls for trees and boredom and perhaps a moment of harrowing introspection…”
Talia woke to this and saw Gary Moon staring absently at the back of the seat. She dug something sandy out of her eye, shifted to let a cascade of pins course her arm.

“What did she say?” Talia asked.



“I don’t know who that is.”

“Okay,” Talia said. “Uh, how did you sleep?”

“Like I might never come back. You?”

“I never get more than halfway there on the bus. Dreaming without sleeping.”
Waking up always held a tension of unreality, like she were now in some dream above or below the other and would momentarily wake again.

“That’s crazy talk,” Gary said, his mouth half full of something. “You believe in angels?”

“I don’t know I—”

“Saw one twice. Last time was the day before my arrangement. . .I’m shotgunning beers with Fred out back of his junkyard. Now Fred, he’ll claim he didn’t see nothing, but I tell you there it was. . .Stretched from one end of the county to the other. Shaped like a tear-drop, curving as it flew. Same colors you see on a little oil-sheen in the parking lot—shifting, green like a bottle fly, purple like a beetle.”

At the break, they got out at a truck stop hewn together from logs. Talia pretended to smoke a cigarette, like half the bus was doing for real. She flexed her knees and straightened her beaver brown hair in the dusty aluminum of the bus with finger-nails chipped to reveal their native pink.

It seemed she was exactly where she ought to be. All of them—Gary and Vonda, the driver there stubbing out his smoke, the wiry owner of the road-side store even—buying a proposition to which they had no say, steered through their time here by a part of themselves they did not control. And what would they be if they were to pretend otherwise. She watched them file onto the bus, knowing which way to stagger without a thought. She could bail out at the next crossroad; there is always some crossroad to bail out at, but then you will never get there.


After dusk, Vonda interviewed Gary Moon and he spoke redneck eloquence about dull-edged survival in the joint—a scar cut into his chest by the honed edge of a butter knife, solitary confinement like being tightly swaddled in dark wool and left to argue with yourself. He said there are angels flying over us and through us all the time and that they know you better than you know yourself, but you are not allowed to ask them questions. You have to simply see them and know. Vonda asked him what he would say to those who thought him crazy and he said that well, then, the moment he went crazy is when he found peace.

“How was the old dodger?” he asked Talia, coming back to his seat.

“Good. You’re good at that.”

“N.A., we share all the time.”

“N A?”

“Narcotics Anonymous. I thought those’d be the guys inside that knew how to get dope, you know. Turns out there was a higher authority running things. . .You know what you learn in there? What I learned?”

“No. . .I. . .”

“Everyone itchy. Moment you’re born you’re wanting something, thinking it can be different than it is right now. Mine was drugs until I learned inside to sit still. That young lady back there. . . her itch, I don’t know—attention, maybe. That’s fine. Maybe it’s wanting to know people. Everybody, you gotta scratch, see. That’s humannessity. But you gotta try to keep your nails trimmed.” He held up a hundred year old hand with perfectly clipped nails. “Or you’ll scratch right through to your insides.”

At their midnight stop, Cowboy Bob in the back row—a sharp tanline on his skinny arms, spurs jangling on his boots, a hat the size of a pumpkin—kneeled in the aisle and wretched. A man dressed like Robin Hood tried to pull him to the toilet, but he broke loose, hacking and sobbing—no, laughing—and sprinted for the front. The lights came on and the driver—a rangy whisker of a man with yawning eyes—stood to stop him, but Cowboy Bob blew by and crazied all over the parking lot. The passengers cowled their eyes at the glass to watch and Talia had the best view of all as he staggered beneath her window—moving as though chased by wasps—and dropped to a knee, tearing items from his pockets and casting them to the ground like they had become extremely hot. He stood again and stalked a car for a moment, careful to stay out of its view, and finally lunged to tear free a side mirror and dash it ineptly against the window.

In his interview on Realities, Cowboy Bob had talked about working oil rigs, about how he needed to sweat to keep things from accumulating. He’d gone first or second and thought the show was some complicated flirtation. He was bursting out of his pants from months in the field but eventually settled down and said he was ready to move on to better things, that as far as he was concerned, he’d filled his nostrils with all the oil he cared to smell.

When the cops showed, Cowboy Bob was standing waist deep in a dumpster throwing trash out like he was bailing water from his sinking dinghy. They dragged him out, slammed to the pavement, wrenched his arms behind him. And then the bus was moving again and Talia could taste something bitterly metallic on her tongue that was the fact they were leaving him behind. That he couldn’t handle the accumulation any longer and though they had to move on, he had to stay here in Bumfuck, Wyorado and it would be the worst night of his life, barely memorable to her years from now.

She fell asleep with her eyes on the sliver of the moon and dreamed about watching it slide effortless from behind those tall trees that framed her backyard, dreamed she was tucked-in and home and warm.


The sunrise, finally, was beautiful. Talia couldn’t recall ever really seeing it back in the suburbs. It seemed like to footage to her, the latest in laser-tech, the H-ist of Ds, as it came up and the edge of daylight slithered across the hardpan. She watched until the world lingered purple when she looked away.

Vonda cleared her throat and, after half a minute, cleared it again. It was Talia’s turn. Gary Moon made room for her to access the aisle and it seemed a lot of eyes were on her walking the few steps to Vonda’s “studio.” Talia thought she’d been a nearly invisible passenger, but every glance spoke of some association. The young squirrel in row 10, the girl all alone, the highway orphan. If you lie about something like this, then you must have never believed it to begin with.

Vonda and Talia exchanged pleasantries and then the host asked her name.

“They call me Talia, but . . .”

“Talia Butt?” she interjected with a clever grin.

“They call me Talia, but I can’t remember my real name. I’m on my way home.”

“We’ve seen you on the line for a long time, where is home?”

Talia, in the aisle seat, leaned out to look around. The man in his Robin Hood outfit, a moccasin boot jutted out and a wad of blackish gum stuck to the sole. Gary Moon turned and looking back at her as though he’d never seen her before in his life, as if she was something materialized from a dimly remembered dream.

“Talia? Where is home?”

“I don’t know, really. I don’t know where I’m going. I lived before this life, is the only way I can put it.”

“You believe you’ve reincarnated?”

“You would too, if things felt like this to you.”

“That’s amazing,” Vonda said. “And how will you know when you’ve found it? What will you do?”


In the afternoon, just over the line into Oregon, she bought hamburgers for herself and Gary and they ate them in the seat as the bus pulled out of the lot. There was a new driver or the old driver had reverted in age a decade. Gary had come to rattling off errant towns he’d seen in his day. At first, quizzing Talia whether she knew of them, but now just mumbling their names like they were a mantra that proved he’d taken some route in this world. The country now not so much a theater but a poem: Green River, Hampstead, Elko, Praetoria, Bloomington, Corvallis, Rapid City. . .

At dusk, the sun pink and orange and the bus as if drawn to it, Gary pointed out her window:

“There’s one,” he said, referring to a blank patch of sky. One of his angels.

“You see it there, big as an airship. You see it moving, you see it grooving, all of us right this second blessed or doomed, right?”


“Right there, you can see it if you just look. You see it?”

She looked and looked, tried seeing as if through his eyes. Nothing there but the empty sky draining of light.

“I don’t see it, Gary. I’m looking, for real. I’m sure it’s absolutely beautiful.”

About Brad Kelly

Brad Kelly is an alumnus of the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas. His work has appeared in *Midwestern Gothic*, *Cobalt, The Underground, Barnstorm, *and elsewhere. He currently makes a living as a sewer engineer in Detroit and will soon be releasing his novel *House of Sleep* one way or another. You can follow him on Twitter at @BradKelly.

Issue #13 April 2020

I remember when the candle shop burned down. Everyone stood around singing ‘Happy Birthday.’ – Steven Wright

April 2020 Issue
Get your PDF copy here

The Book Smuggler’s Den magazine has been up and running for a year now!

We’ve had so much fun reading writers’ short stories, essays, and poems submitted from around the world. The creative minds of writers always blows me away. I recently read Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert and she had a lot of interesting things to say regarding the writing process. She advocates for embracing your curiosity and letting go of all the “what ifs” artists have about sharing their gifts. Over and over she kept saying how lucky she got with the success of Eat, Pray, Love. I’d have to disagree. I think what really happened is she poured her heart out on pages that people related to. The story was interesting, traveling around the world to “find” yourself. She should give herself more credit! Her writing style, use of grammar, and descriptions all made for an enjoyable read.

You should do the same too! When your piece gets published, don’t think it was because you got lucky. It was because someone saw the piece as a whole and not one aspect of it. The reader enjoyed it because you are creative, talented, and a writer that doesn’t quit. Always remember that when one of your pieces is denied to not give up on it. Find a writing partner to critique it, and rework if it need be. Try and try again. It could be that the place you submitted it to was the wrong publication for your writing.

We are so grateful for everyone who contributes each month and hope that you all will continue to do so.

Happy writing,
Dani & The Book Smuggler’s Den Community

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The Belief Ritual, Edward Ahern
Stars and Sky, Ian Campbell
The One Who Leaves, Melissa Mark
Dawn Into Dusttown, McKinnon
Ọgbanje, Kasimma Okani
Star of the East, Edward Sheehy
King of the Sky, Jack Wildern
Smokes, Madeline Sexten-Yeatts


Two Poems by Anastasia Jill
The Colour of January, Carol Stewart
Amour, Dr. Priya Dolma Tamang

Book Reviews

Maid by Stephanie Land, Reviewed by Dani Watkins

Writing Prompts

Issue #14 May 2020

Writing is like a ‘lust,’ or like ‘scratching when you itch.’ Writing comes as a result of a very strong impulse, and when it does come, I, for one, must get it out. – C. S. Lewis

May 2020 issue
Click to download your copy

Hello readers and writers!

What a crazy couple of months it has been? Unfortunately, these crazy times had an effect on our publication and we missed the deadline for our April (coming soon, we promise!). The show must go on they say and we made an executive decision to move forward and publish the May edition of the Book Smuggler’s Den.

I’m not a big fan of watching the news and I have heard plenty of people tell me why that is a bad idea. “You need to be informed,” they’ll say to me. But I counter with, “Why?” End. Of. Story. This is why I love turning to reading and writing! As a writer myself, I’ve been paying attention to prompts posted on social media. I feel that in times like these, writing about something totally unrelated is healthy! This is why we loved the pieces submitted to us this month! Pieces far removed from what the news reports, and I am so grateful we received so many enjoyable short stories and book recommendations.

The Book Smuggler’s Den does everything it can to promote authors, but we are a small publication. We are so grateful for all of those who submitted this month and can’t thank you enough for your interest in the magazine.

Without further ado (and drama) let’s get to some reading! 


Dani & The Book Smuggler’s Den Community

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Stars and Sky, Ian Campbell

Dawn Into Dusttown, McKinnon

The One Who Leaves, Melissa Mark

Ọgbanje, Kasimma Okani

Star of the East, Edward Sheehy

Book Reviews

Adrift on the Nile by Naguib Mahfouz, Reviewed by Nadia Benjelloun

Writing prompts


by Kasmma kan


You did not expect the turn of events after the copycat deaths of your children. Your first child went to bed a healthy child nine days after her birth. By morning, she was as stiff and strong as frozen meat. Your second child copied her. But after you buried your third child, your father sent for you. Your wife was still snoring like a locomotive that morning when you left with the teenager who brought your father’s message. You got there and found your parents seated on white plastic chairs, arms folded, lips turned downwards, eyes distanced. You sensed that there was Fire on the mountain. On the ground beside your father’s outstretched legs was a gourd of palm wine. The mouth of the gourd was stuffed with omu nkwu leaves. Your father’s walking stick was between his legs. His raffia palm hand fan lay on his lap. Three tumblers and a green thick-glass plate with two kola nuts in it lay on the stool before your mother. You sighed in relief.

“Ah ah, this one your faces are like rain-battered faeces. Ọgịnị?”

“Sit down, my son,” your father said.

You dusted the spare chair and sat. “So why are you two looking moody?”

Your father proceeded with the kola nut ritual. He was in no hurry to thank his gods and ancestors for a new day and everything. You could not take your eyes off your chain wristwatch. You declined the kola nut and palm wine.

“Agụnna, kedụ?” your father said.

“I am fine, Nnam,” you responded.

“You will have to stop looking at that clock of yours. A man whose house is on fire does not pursue rats.”

You rubbed your beardless jaw. “Nnam, you know that I am the only doctor in the hospital. I have to be there on time.”

Your father bit his kola nut. “I have called you this morning for two reasons. First,” he raised his forefinger, “you must get interested in this family’s arọbịnagụ and learn the yearly ritual in its honour. I am an old man with limited time in this space. Our arọbịnagụ have faithfully provided us with riches from which you have benefited. Do not let the spirits scrape your mouth on the ground before you start sacrificing to them.”

“Nnam, at the risk of repeating myself, I am a Christian and cannot participate in anything fetish.”

Your father turned to your mother.

“It is our tradition,” she said, “what is fetish about offering the oracle a white fowl and three kola nuts yearly? It does not stop you from going to church.”

You shook your head and looked at your watch. You had been through that argument several times and had no patience that morning for it. The loud sound of your father’s gulps made you turn in his direction. For a brief moment, you felt pity. Your father used to be a huge agile man. Now he was all skin and bone. Your mother who was once a feared teacher was not spared from the fearless aging process.

“Secondly, Agụ,” he raised two fingers, “it is about your childlessness. This issue chases sleep away from my eyes. How can I join my ancestors knowing that my only child is childless? Agụ, agw n n’akrka.”

“There is no snake anywhere, Nnam. We have had all these discussions before. My wife and I are just going through…”

“Through what?” your mother snapped. “We have had this discussion before,” she mimicked you. “Have you not seen that whatever is eating your children is above western medicine?”

You sighed. At a distance, a cock crowed and the sun rose at a snail’s pace. Your father’s unkempt black toes became slightly visible.

“It is not above western medicine, Nnem. My first son died of pneumonia. My first daughter died of diarrhea. My second daughter…”

“Died of gonorrhea or is it syphilis…”

“Nnem, my children did not die of gonorrhea and…”

“I guess that their gonorrhea and syphilis killed them on their ninth nights on earth.”

You snorted in disgust, falling back on your seat and breathing heavily. Your mother clanked her tongue to deride you. You ignored her. It had become bright. The bleating of hungry goats and sheep and sounds of sweeping replaced the howling of dogs. Human voices gradually rose to full-blown sounds of praying, singing and even quarreling. You heard a feminine voice scream at a child to go get ready for school. You looked at your watch and gasped.


“I have told you to stop looking at that clock.”

You sighed in resignation. “Nnam, don’t worry. I will have a child. My wife will give birth to the one that will stay. We are taking adequate medical precautions now.”

Your father smiled lopsidedly. Old age did not hide his dimples.

“It is beyond the white man medicine, nwam,” he shook his crossed legs. “A man pressed with watery feces does not walk. I have taken the pains to go and consult a diviner. He confirmed my fears,” he cleared his throat and spat out the thick yellow sputum. “Agụ, you are having ọgbanje children.”

You jumped up. “Dear Jesus! God forbid!”

You circled your hand around your head and snapped your fingers. Your mother shifted her legs as if to dodge the ill you snapped away.

You sat again. “Nnam, please, I am a Christian. I do not believe in all these things. What business have I got with ọgbanje children, for goodness sake?”

“Those wicked and mysterious spirits choose whomever they want.”

“But I have had a boy and two girls…”

“…who all died under the same circumstances, and, I am certain, at the same hour. You do not even need a diviner to tell you that you are dealing with ọgbanje spirits here.”

Your mother hissed. “When we warned you not to marry that thing, you refused. It must have come from her.”

Two deep lines appeared on her forehead. But you were not prepared to go down that road with her. No, not today!

“My son, a man who removes a woman’s clothes does not just stand and stare. You must join me to go and see the abiankata. He can put an end to this.”

“Me!” you struck your chest, “in a shrine? Are you joking?”

Your mother drew her ears. “Use your tongue to count your teeth, gị bụ nwa!”

“Nnam,” you ignored your mother, “please I have to go. Thank you for your concern, but I cannot do as you have asked. This is the year 1994, not 1915. I am an England trained medical doctor, and I am telling you that my children’s problems are purely medical. Our next child will stay. Watch and see.”


You knew everybody in the village watched and listened as soon as your wife’s pregnancy became news. You took every medical precaution. Your wife, Amalachi, did not miss a day of her routine pregnancy drugs. She ate fruits and fed well. You insisted on that. Even your pastor did not bat an eye when you told him you were going to his rival church to seek a miracle. The rival pastor prayed over a white handkerchief and gave it to you. His instructions were clear. At midnight, spread the handkerchief on Amalachi’s stomach and read Psalms 91 and 23. The handkerchief would become the spiritual ultrasound machine. Place your lips very close to Amalachi’s belly and speak life to the child. After this, drop the handkerchief in a white basin—he emphasized on the white colour—and pour hot water on it. Then hold hands with your wife and pray until the water is warm enough to drink. Drink it. You did this until the baby was born.

You also visited a priest who gave you a rosary after making the sign of the cross above it. He asked you to recite it every day, and by 3 a.m., you should say the chaplet of the divine mercy. You had to buy Catholic books to teach you how to say all these prayers. You even went the extra mile to place the rosary on Amalachi’s stomach while she slept.

You were always falling asleep in the office. Your body moved from chubby to gaunt. Though your wife gained weight, the strain was not lost in her eyes.

The baby arrived. Her skin was as smooth as ice cream. She was so fat that she tore Amalachi’s vagina to make more room for herself to pass. Her eyes were the brightest brown eyes you’ve ever seen. She had your full nose and heart-shaped lips. She looked nothing like your wife.

You were as sure as yam is yam that this child will stay. She sucked breasts more than her predecessors. She laughed often, gave no troubles, and grew fatter each day. These were good signs but you did not let your guard down. You prayed and recited your rosary every morning and night.

While Amalachi slept on the ninth night of the baby’s birth, you kept watch. You had to eat kola nut, something you find very bitter, just to stay awake. A part of you was afraid that your father was right. The second part of you continued to wallow in denial. You never took your eyes off that baby for even one second. You prayed your chaplet of divine mercy with your eyes on your daughter. Not too long after that prayer, everywhere became cold. You refused to rush to your room and get a cover. Even when an eddy of cold air swirled through the windows making the curtains wave, woooh-woooh sang the wind, you did not blink. The only time you felt slightly scared was when you sensed a chill on your skin that made all your body hair stand up. The truth is, there was a presence in that room. The spirit stood close to you, looking at you as if trying to divert your attention from the baby. It had a neck as long as a giraffe. Its body, covered with white hair, was as muscular as a chimpanzee. Its legs were as pink and as soft as a tongue, and its hands weaved together as a batwing. Then, it started shrinking, turning to a human form. His spider-face turned to that of a very handsome “person” with bright red eyes and black pupils. Its hair looked like long strands of algae. It had strong muscles and torso as a man but it had no private part. It walked away from you and stood close to the bed. It carried your daughter’s spirit, and rocked it tenderly, back and forth. Then it jumped out of the window with the baby and turned into a bat. When you could no longer hear the baby’s soft snores, you placed your index finger under her nose: no breath. You raised her hand but it surrendered to the force of gravity. You pulled down her lower eyelid. Her fixated brown pupils stared right back. You stumbled back to your chair. Your head spun like a sewing machine’s wheel. When you got a hold of yourself, you looked at the time, 4:00 a.m., about the time your other baby died. Everywhere became still. The curtains stopped waving, the wind stopped howling, and the chill vanished. You stared at your baby’s corpse, squeezing the handle of the chair as if to crush it. Taking it in your stride as a man should, one deep breath at a time, you returned to your room. You lay on your bed and put your pillow on your head but sleep eluded you. Even when your wife started screaming at dawn, you stayed the same.


Five months later, you came back from work one night to find your wife crying in the sitting room. You went to the kitchen to look for food, but you met the pots so sparkling, they almost blinded your eyes. You settled for bread and groundnuts.

“Nonye, what is it?” you asked your wife, sitting across from her.

You are the only one who refused to call her by her nickname, Amalachi. A name she got due to her love for the food, amala.

“Your mother came here today.”

You sighed. You knew what next.

“It was worse than her former visits. She called me Mamiwater. She said I came to use you to produce children for my spirit husband. She cursed me. She said I will die during my next childbirth.”

“What!” you accidentally knocked down the plate of groundnuts. They were happy to roll far-far away from you. “My mother said that to you?”

Amalachi blew her nose. “Nobody sells to me in the market any longer. Nobody speaks to me. They squeeze their faces and hide their children’s faces when I pass by. They call me names, spit on me, and even remind me that I am ugly.”

You went to her and hugged her. She buried her face in your chest and bawled. Tears dropped from your eyes.

“You are not ugly. Don’t mind them.”

But you know you were lying. She’s ugly. Let’s not go into her orange complexion. Not chocolate, not fair, not bleached, orange! Her ugliness is as bitter as a mixture of chloroquine and bitter leaf juice. Imagine someone drinking this mixture? What would the person do to their face? Squeeze the hell out of it, is that not so? And even spit? Good. Now, do you understand why sometimes when she walked past, people spat?

“I cannot continue like this, Agụ.”

“Don’t worry. The next baby will stay.”

She raised her head from her chest, shaking her head. “Go and see abiankata.”

“What!” you pushed her away. “Have you joined them? Have you forgotten that I am an assistant pastor?”

“There are many ways of serving God,” she cleaned her face with the flat of her hands. “Christianity is not the only religion. Look at me,” she jumped up. “I am a skeleton. Look at my breasts,” she raised her shirt and dangled both breasts to your face. Each breast looked like half a slice of bread and dangled like a hanged man. “They are flat but no child to show for it. I almost died during the last labour. You know how much blood I lost…”

“Don’t be melodramatic. I will never turn my back on God.” You dismissed her with the wave of the hand.

Deep lines appeared on her forehead. Her orangeness shone. “Melodrama, isn’t it? Melo… Okay. You have three options. If you will not consult abiankata, you either take me back to my parents or I will kill myself.” She stormed out.

You took it as a flippant statement. But when a bottle of rat poison surfaced in your rat-free house, two weeks later, you affirmed to her that you will consult the abiankata.

Before dawn, the next day, you went to see your father and narrated your ordeal.

Your father smiled. “I have been trying to tell you this long ago, Agụ. A child dances to the sweet melody of Surugede without knowing that Surugede is the dance of the spirits. I named you Tiger, not Rat. You are ready to be my son.”

That same morning, your father and you strolled to the house of Dikeọgụ, the abiankata. Your father must have fanned himself a thousand times before you two arrived in the modest bungalow of the diviner. The sandy compound was decorated with marks from a traditional broom. A teenage girl carrying a pail of water on her head curtsied as she greeted you two.

“Thank you, my daughter,” your father responded, smiling from molar to molar. “Nwa aga alụ alụ! Please tell your father that I am here with my son.”

You felt embarrassed for the little girl when your father called her “marriageable.”

Your father pulled you closer. “That is the girl you will take for a second wife if this option does not work.”

“God forbid, Nnam,” you whispered back. “I am not a pedophile.”

Your father hissed.

“Nweze!” a very deep voice rang out from inside the house. “Welcome. The door is open.”

Your father raised his raffia hand fan. “Dikeọgụ! Ekenem g.”

You gave your father a hand as he climbed the steep steps. You parted the old curtain for him and waited for him to enter first.

The deep voice rang again. “Welcome. There is seat o!”

You looked around you. There was a wooden altar lighted by a tiny bulb. It shocked and well as relaxed you to see the crucifix between the portraits of Jesus and Mary. A huge rosary hung on a nail at the left of the altar.

You nudged your father, your mouth almost entering his ears. “Had you told me that this man is a prophet, I should have come with you the last time.”

Your father chuckled and whispered back. “He is Christian in front and a native diviner behind.”

You did not believe him. You looked at the brown sofas and wooden center table. The floor was covered in a sparkling blue carpet. Nothing suggested that this man was a local diviner. Three curtains at different parts of the house suggested that there were three rooms. Along came a woman with a big stomach, whom you assume was his wife, carrying a tray. She was all smiles as she asked after your mother and your wife. She dropped her tray bearing a saucer of garden eggs and groundnut and two cans of soft drinks and left. A tall man, who should not be more than forty-four, dressed in a neat police uniform emerged from one of the curtains. He wore eyeglasses and maintained a neat moustache. Even when you heard his deep voice, you still did not affirm to yourself that he was Dikeọgụ. He shook your hand firmly as your father introduced you to each other.

“Ah, ah, you have not touched your kola?” Dikeọgụ said.

“Kola is in the hand of the king,” your father said.

The man laughed. “Go ahead. It belongs to you.”

You were still quiet. Both of them discussed as if you were absent. You heard him tell your father that he had had kola already and… your mind faced its business. You did not understand what was happening. Are you yet to go to the diviner’s place or what? You heard them laughing about something you must have missed.

“Why is your daughter at home?”

“That one,” Dikeọgụ waved his hand, “she got suspended for fighting in school.”


“And let me warn you, my daughter will go to the university and become a doctor like your son. She is not to get married yet.”

Hot urine pushed down your bladder but you held your fort. You were very certain that your father whispered to you when you were outside. How then did this man repeat what you two discussed?

Your father laughed. “Of what use is a woman if not marriage?”

“Anyway,” he hit the back of his palms on his thighs, “my own daughter will be the best woman she can be.”

Your “independent” head nodded in agreement.

“So let us get into what brought you people here. I am about to go to work.”

“Work?” you blurted out.

He laughed, pointing at himself. “Can you not see that I am a police officer?”

You could no longer hold back your questions. “You are not the dibia, are you?”

He shook his head. “I am not the dibia.”

You held your chest and sighed in relief. A dog barked some distance away.

“I am Abiankata,” he said.

Your eyes flung open. “Are they not the same thing?”

Dikeọgụ laughed. “They are not the same thing. The agwudibia is a physician. I am a diviner. So if you are sick, this is not the best place to be. Go to Okafor’s house. Though,” he raised his hands in surrender, “let me clear your doubts. Both agwudibia and abiankata get our gifts from the goddess, Nneagwu.”

You pointed at the altar. “You are a Christian, are you not?”

He shrugged. “I cannot boldly go by that title, but my wife and children are Christians. It is the same God but different methods of worship. I go to church occasionally though.”

As if he could still read the confused look on your face, he added, “stop by another day and I shall clear all your doubts. For now,” he glanced at his watch, “let us get to business. I am running late.”

You rubbed your beardless jaw and shrugged. Your father relaxed on the sofa, shaking his legs and chewing his teeth noiselessly.

Dikeọgụ drew closer to the edge of his chair. “Agụ, I have consulted the goddess on your behalf. They told me that you are having ọgbanje children.”

You shuddered. Your body felt cold. You looked at your father who tilted his head slightly as if to say he told you so. You began to think that you were watching a drama unfold. Had your father secretly convinced this educated man to pretend to be a diviner and convince you of the “ọgbanje” thing?

“Your wife is pregnant, is she not?”

The urine pushed harder. You clasped your legs shut. You only found out yesterday after you tested her urine yourself. No one except both of you knew. How then did this man know?

“She will give birth to that baby, a girl. However, I’m afraid, she will die like the rest of your children.”

You covered your mouth with one hand, the second still between your clasped legs as if to push the urine back. Dikeọgụ looked at his watch again. Your father lowered his head and rubbed his forehead.

“It is too late to save this one. We will use her to set an example. After her death, I will give you a charm to bury around your house and give your wife a concoction to drink. But, and listen very carefully,” he drew his ears, “when the baby dies, neither you nor your wife should touch the corpse until I come.”

You could no longer hold back the urine. You rushed outside, went close to the bush, and relieved yourself.


When you watched the fifth child die, just like the others, you covered your sleeping wife’s mouth. She jerked out of sleep.

“She’s dead. Don’t shout and don’t touch her.”

She still tried to shout but you pressed your palm to her mouth and clenched your fist. “I said don’t shout. Do you want me to knock off your teeth?”

Her burning tears splashed on your palms. You left her mouth alone and staggered to your chair. Your wife cried until a few minutes later when the Dikeọgụ’s voice and bell-staff tolled in your compound. You unlocked the door and went outside. It was no longer the educated policeman that approached your house. The voice, however, was unmistakably Dikeọgụ’s. He walked gracefully and noiselessly as a tiger. He was wearing a white, cotton, ankle-length skirt and white, sleeveless, baggy shirt. His big goat-skin bag slung on his shoulder and he did not wear eyeglasses. A living turtle crawled in position on his neck, held fastened by a black neck rope. He neither greeted nor responded to your greeting. He entered the house walking backward and straight to the room where the baby lay as if he had been there before. Still reciting his incantations, he scooped the corpse of the baby and walked outside. You held your sobbing wife in your bosom as both of you walked behind him. The harmattan wind threatened to push down the trees; its howling sounds made the aura eerier. Amalachi hugged herself.

Dikeọgụ dropped the corpse on the sand and sat about ten feet away. “Undress her.”

You left Amalachi standing alone and carried Dikeọgụ’s order even if you felt as though you were exposing your “dead” baby to the cold. Her body was still as soft as cotton.

Dikeọgụ brought out a dagger from his bag and pointed it at you.

“Knife her.”

Your legs felt stiff and heavy. You wondered how you could stab your baby even though she is dead. Your wife clutched to your feet, pleading with you to allow the child to die well at least. You kicked your legs free, mistakenly hitting her in the jaw, and collected the dagger from Dikeọgụ. Consumed in the helpless rage from watching your children die, you dug the knife into her chest and dragged it down. Blood sputtered out, splashing on your wife and you. You knifed all parts of the baby’s body except her face. You could not bear touching her cute face. Her organs were visible from her mutilated body. Tears streamed down your eyes. You could not even bear looking at your wife who kneeled beside your baby, wailing.

“It can hear. Speak,” said Dikeọgụ.

You looked around as if trying to figure out where the malign spirit stood. “You malign spirit. You better not come back here! When you go back, tell them that I, Agụ, the tiger, said that if I catch you here again, I will bury you part by part. I will gouge out your eyes and chew them raw. I will use your brains for ngwọ-ngwọ.”

Dikeọgụ laughed. He produced three bundled ọmụ leaves from his bag which he gave to you. “Cover her.”

You spread the leaves all over the bloodied corpse.

“Set her on fire.”

You dashed inside, got a box of matches and a cup of kerosene. As you doused her in kerosene, you saw Amalachi holding her chest as though she was preventing it from falling apart. You flung the cup, struck a match and threw it on the corpse. It caught fire. The smell of burnt hair filled the air. You hugged the wailing Amalachi. Suddenly, you heard Dikeọgụ laughing, his oily face made visible by the fire, and pointing at nothing you could see.

“See them running away. Can you not see them over there?”

Hot vicious urine pushed down your bladder, but you had to stand like a man. Amalachi held you tighter as if she should enter your body, making you more determined to feign strength.


One year later, after obediently adhering to Dikeọgụ’s instructions, Amalachi gave birth to a son. As soon as Amalachi pushed her baby out from her vagina, the nurse screamed and almost dropped the baby. She rushed to the dressing table and dropped the baby as if he were a plate crawling with maggots.

You went called in. You looked at your baby. You recognized the long scars all over the baby’s body and even on his scrotum. The longest and deepest scar ran from his chest to his stomach. He had pink patches all over his body, hands, and legs like someone with vitiligo. You did not understand any of it. He wailed, kicking his legs, and reaching out to you. You carried him.

About Kasimma Okani

Kasimma Okani was born and raised in Nigeria. She schooled, worked, married, and is raising her family in Nigeria. She self-published her first set of books—three novellas—at the age of sixteen. Since then, fifteen years later, she has been trying to be an excellent writer. Her dream is to write very strong unforgettable stories that stay with the readers long after the book’s been closed. That is why she has made efforts to be a better writer, participating in Chimamanda Adichie’s Creative Writing Workshop, 2019; International Writing Workshop, 2019; SSDA flow workshop, 2019. Kasimma has also been a writer-in-resident at Faber, Spain; Wole Soyinka Foundation, Nigeria; Thread, Senegal; and elsewhere.