Sir Charles and the Mutt by Academy Monthly

Introduction:

My story “Sir Charles and the Mutt”, is a classist story based on privilege portrayed through dog’s lives as purebred (aristocrat), mix breeds (bourgeoisie), and mutts (proletariat). This builds on classic fairy tale tropes and structures as it provides a unique perspective on Marxist ideas through an indirect correlation between humans and dogs. 

Charles has grown up in an aristocratic town comprised solely of purebred dogs, and only knows his privileged life until he ultimately needs the help of a mutt named Daisy to find his way home. After falling for Daisy, Charles makes a decision to leave his aristocratic and protected life by volunteering at a soup kitchen in hopes of someday being able to find Daisy. Working at the soup kitchen allows Charles to experience the hardships of other classes through characters such as Charlie and others. Charlie, a mixed breed, is very similar to Charles except for the fact that he has not had the same opportunities given his bourgeoisie class. After coming to the realization of how privileged his life has been, Charles decides that he wants to advocate for all the dogs that aren’t given the same respect and opportunities the he has been afforded. Eventually through many hardships and obstacles, Charles, with the help of Daisy, is able to secretly help mixed breeds and mutts join a dog show that had previously only allowed pure breeds to participate. Sampson, a good looking mutt, ultimately ends up winning the dog show and surprising everyone, despite his proletariat class. Charles, using his status, is able to help all dogs feel that they are given the same opportunities as one another and are viewed as equals. 

The intended audience for this story are children so that they can learn the lessons of equality, respect, and opportunity, regardless of their backgrounds and socioeconomic class. As young children develop their sense of self and awareness of their class, they can be heavily influenced by both perceived and real barriers in achieving their own individual success. The purpose for writing this tale is to not only teach children a message of equality amongst gender, classes, and races/nationalities, but to also help recognize the challenges that class systems present. 

 

 

Once upon a time in a land full of dogs of all shapes and sizes lived a young purebred Saint Bernard named Sir Charles. Growing up, Charles was always limited to socializing within the purebred society. All of his family were purebred, all of his friends were purebred, and all of his neighbors were purebred. The neighborhood that Charles was raised in was lined with grand white-columned homes and always seemed to smell like fresh-trimmed grass and roses. There was not a truck or loud car to be seen, and all you could hear were the chirping of the birds on the white picket fences. Everyone surrounding him were purebred including Charles’ fiancee, Mila, another Saint Bernard of aristocratic bloodlines whom he’d been bound to marry since they were just puppies. Mila was very pretty, with long flowing hair, a fluffy tail, and nails perfectly trimmed. She often performed in and won many dog shows across the country, flaunting her skills and beauty to everyone. However, Charles was never quite sure if Mila was the right dog for him, as she never truly allowed him to be as happy as he had hoped.

On Charles’ third birthday, he and his closest friends, Ralph the Black Lab and Ripple the Pug, decided to venture out for a night on the town. After a late night of playing in the parks, being offered gourmet snacks from the local restaurants, the three gentledogs decided it was time to walk home. Unfortunately, in their quest for the next great park and restaurant food, they had wandered beyond their protected neighborhood and found themselves lost without a scent to help them get home. They continued into the cold darkness of the unfamiliar streets, often being startled by loud trucks and cars passing by. Saddened and scared, the trio stumbled upon a mutt who appeared out of the darkness of an alleyway.

           “Who are you?” questioned Ripple.

            “Daisy,” she said. “You aren't from around these parts, are ya?”

           “We lost our way trying to get home. Can you help us?” asked Ralph.

           Speechless, Charles in the meantime just stared at the mutt. Usually the leader, he couldn't figure out what to say. Despite being a mutt, she was very beautiful, confident, and smart, and Charles was both confused and enamored by her.

           “I’ll help you three get home, but I have to get back soon, I’ve got a job to get to in the morning” she said.

           Together, the four of them walked through town until they began to pick up a familiar scent and noticed the streetlights from their town up ahead. After pointing them in the right direction, and without even a goodbye, Daisy quickly turned back and went home. Ralph and Ripple then proceeded to ask Charles what happened to him back when they ran into Daisy, and he just replied with a simple “cat got my tongue, that’s all.”

           Months passed and Charles couldn’t get this mutt out of his mind. Her beauty, charm, confidence, and smarts surprised him, as she was just a mutt. As time passed, Charles realized he couldn’t shake the feelings he had for Daisy from just this one meeting, and thus decided that he had to break off the engagement with Mila. Whether Daisy was the one or not, he knew he had to do everything in his power find out.

           Charles had an idea to volunteer at a nearby soup kitchen, with the hope that he might run into Daisy once again. At the soup kitchen, Charles met many different dogs including mutts and mixed breeds, but none who knew Daisy. It wasn’t until Charles met Charlie, a mixed breed Labrador and Poodle called a Labradoodle, that Charles understood how privileged he truly was.

“It’s just more difficult for anyone who isn’t a purebred now-a-days” explained Charlie. “Just because I’m not pure, I couldn’t get into the good schools, and the higher paying jobs just won’t take me!”

           Charlie was a very good dog with a wife and puppies on the way, and Charles couldn’t understand how dogs that are so similar could be so different just because of their background. Charles felt a sense of unfairness that a dog as good as Charlie couldn’t get a good job to support his wife and future family. It was at that point that Charles said, “I’m going to make this right” and stormed out.

           In the meantime, Charlie returned to his small apartment and his wife Delilah, and proceeded to tell her about his day.

           “Today I met a purebred who promised to help me get a good job!” He explained.

           “That’s great! But what is everyone else going to think when you work at a ‘purebred’ company?”

           “They should be happy for me… right?”

           “They should be, but not everyone will be okay with this kind of change as you know we’re not supposed to mix together.”

           Soon enough the whole town began to hear about Charles’ plan to create equality for all dogs, and it seemed that most agreed on a need for change. He’d be complimented walking down the street, stopped at the park, and even approached at the store. He was told that this was a long overdue change but was equally warned it may not be easy, and that there may be some that would resist the change. As Charles continued on his day, a Rottweiler named Jasper from down the street caught him off guard and pinned him against the wall in a back alley of a nearby building.

           “This whole equality thing you’re trying to do will ruin my life!” barked Jasper. “How am I supposed to work with mixed breeds?! Or even worse, Mutts! They’re not as good as us and they will take our jobs!”

           “They have the right to these jobs just as we all do. Just because they’re not a purebred doesn’t mean they can’t do the job. They deserve the same opportunities that we all have been given!” Charles tried to explain.

           Frustrated and now pacing, Jasper says, “no… no…. I can’t have this… you need to stop this now.”

           “What do you mean?”

           “This whole ‘all dogs created equal’ thing you’re going for needs to stop, or else something bad will happen to your friend Charlie. And I’m not the only one who feels this way.”

           “No! I can’t stop trying to help these dogs… no one else is trying to help them!”

           “Suit yourself…” Jasper said ominously, as he backed away.

           Weeks passed and everything seemed to be going well for Charles. He was able to convince his family to sponsor a dog show in which he would surprise all the judges with mixed breeds, mutts, and purebreds side by side. The only thing missing in his grand plan was Daisy. Charles told all of his mixed breed and mutt friends to look for her and invite her to the dog show, with hopes that he could see her again.

           In the days leading up to the dog show, Charles received a random phone call in the middle of the night.

           “Is this Charles?” asked an unknown voice on the phone.

           “Yes… who is this?” retorted Charles.

           “This is Delilah, Charlie's wife, he’s in trouble.”

           “Why what happened?!”

           “On his way home from his second job he was jumped by a Rottweiler, and he’s in the hospital now in critical condition”

           “I’ll be right over” Charles said as he hung up the phone and sprinted out of his house. Turns out that Jasper wasn’t lying when he said that he'd hurt Charlie, and Charles felt responsible.

           “I’m so sorry, Charlie” Charles said woefully staring at Charlie casted from head to tail.

           “No, don’t be sorry. If I need to be here in order for change to happen, I will be the sacrificial pup” Charlie said while the heart monitors beeped in the background.

           “Is there anything I can do to help?

           “Just go out there, have that dog show, and make a difference for all dogs.”

           “I will.”

           As the day of the dog show came around, Charles was nervous. As he arrived at the front door, he noticed all of his mutt and mixed friends stuck outside rumbling and screaming about.

           “They won’t let us in!” said one. “They said that purebred dogs are the only ones allowed to participate in the show!”

           Charles stormed in demanding the judges to let the dogs in, but the head judge refused. Charles didn’t know what to do. As Charles was trying to come up with a solution, he saw a familiar sight in a crowd of tails.  It was Daisy’s!

“I hear you’ve been asking for me?” she said with a bit of sass in her voice.

Charles stuttered a bit and replied with a smile and a loud, “Yes!”

           “Well… it seems you need some help again don’t ya?”

           “Uh, um, uh, yes I do.”

           “Well let’s get everyone into the show first, and then we can chat a bit.”

Turned out Daisy was one of the most savvy mutts in the area, and knew exactly what to do. Daisy organized a back door approach, so each of the mutts could sneak in one by one. Once in, most of the dogs began participating in the various show activities. However one dog, Sampson, was afraid to get in the ring with the other purebred dogs. 

“I’m not good enough to compete with ‘em.”, he exclaimed whimpering in the corner. “I’m not as educated or as good as they are.”

           Charles, overhearing Sampson, came over to him and calmly said, “you can be anything you want regardless of your breed.”

Sampson then rubbed off some of his nervous tears on the rug, hopped into the ring with all the other dogs, and began to compete just like everyone else. Eventually the mixed breeds and mutts started to earn points amongst the judges, and once the dog show was over, everybody was left shocked. Sampson, a mutt nonetheless, ended up winning the “best in class” for the dog show.

           After he claimed his blue ribbon, Sampson revealed to the judges and other purebreds that he was actually a mutt. Everyone was shocked that he was selected to win, including Sampson. No one could understand how a mutt could be the “best in class” dog. The judges began arguing with each other, and finally agreed that all dogs should not only be allowed in dog shows from now on, but should also have the same amount of opportunities to learn different show skills so they can be the best they can be. The dog show became the talk of the town and was the tipping point for a change that affected almost all aspects of life, from schools to jobs, to who could socialize with who.

           Charles had succeeded in creating an equal environment for all dogs. Charlie recovered successfully from the hospital and is on the hunt for better paying jobs to provide for his new-born puppies. Charles and Daisy didn’t lose touch this time around, and began to meet every day at the local park where they laughed, played, and began to fall in love. And they lived happily ever after.

 

Dead in the Water by Academy Monthly

Three days Captain Sullivan had been wandering on his cargo ship, the Oklahoma. Still no land interrupted the horizon on the sea, and for the three days the weather had been favorable. He had woken early in the morning and immediately noticed that the engines weren’t running.  Throwing on his boots and his leather coat he stepped out into the cold sea breeze, swearing as he called out for his first mate. But there was only silence as he waited for a reply. He stood outside his cabin and listened for a moment more, but heard nothing. No sound except for the gentle splashing of the waves on the hull.

He moved toward the main deck, toward the rows of colored cargo containers that were stacked four high all the way down the length of the ship. As he walked by the doors on the walkway he peered inside, seeing the rooms of his crew empty, but still containing their belongings. Some of the lights were on, and the sheets were unmade, as if the occupant had stepped outside for a walk. Captain Sullivan realized after walking the length of the Oklahoma that all of his crew were missing. Not a single man was in sight, and as he stood alone on some of the lower decks and listened, absolutely no sound came from hallways.

He quickly ran to the lifeboats, peering over the railing on the upper deck to look down, only to find that they were missing. The cranes weren’t even moved to deploy the boats; the boats were just missing. He ran down to the main deck to look at the cranes again, as if seeing them up close would make the boats reappear and the nightmare be over. But when he came down the steps they still weren’t there. He peered over the railing into the sea, hoping to find the boats in the water, but as he scanned the waters below, he only saw gentle rippling. As he looked down the side of the Oklahoma he saw twisted metal scarring the smooth hull toward the middle of the ship. He immediately recognized it as a hole in the fuel tanks, and as he looked closer at the water he saw black oil sitting on the surface of the water, staining it a darkened array of colors. He gripped the railing as his breathing started to quicken, he thought of his crew and why they would leave. He had always heard them complain about his rules, but all crewmates complain. Besides, they were a loyal crew, they wouldn’t ever leave him stranded to die.

By the third day, Captain Sullivan had started the emergency generators to keep the lights working, and he checked the storage rooms to take stock of the food. Since he was the sole member of a ship stocked for a full crew, he judged he could last for a few months before the food started to spoil. The Oklahoma had been on course across the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco to Japan, and after three days he couldn’t have been far from the west coast. He spent the hours of the day broadcasting an SOS and thinking of ways to speed up his rescue. But his thoughts turned up nothing; he couldn’t do anything more, so he waited.

 

*          *          *

 

Two weeks passed, and not a single reply on the radio. Captain Sullivan had waited for hours each day by the radio to no avail. He had been keeping track of the days, but there was something that made him question his count. During the two weeks there had been absolutely no weather on the seas. Night and day there were no wind, no clouds, no rain; the sea was dead. Every day was the same, devoid of any weather to distinguish it from the previous day. It was unnatural, almost surreal as if time had stopped, yet each day passed by one after another. Captain Sullivan checked his location multiple times, but even though he had raised the anchors two weeks ago, the ship had stayed in the same place. He hoped that a current or a stray wind would push him toward land, or at least into an area where his SOS would be heard.

He stood now on the upper deck with his binoculars, completing his periodic scan of the horizon. Nothing, not even a stray wave in the distance. While he looked down the length of the Oklahoma, he could hear the voices of his crew in his head, yelling at each other from parts of the ship like they would on any other day. But as he listened to them, slowly they started getting louder, more deliberate. The voices seemed more in his ear now, and the voices of his crew grew more impatient, as if they needed something done quickly. They became louder, yelling orders at each other like they something bad was happening to the ship. Captain Sullivan tried to stop the voices, but he couldn’t, it was as if he was actually hearing them coming from the end of the ship.

He ran toward the voices, and down the stairs to the main deck. He could hear them get louder and louder in his ears, and they moved around the deck like his crew would move around. He panicked as he desperately looked around him, trying to see the sailors, knowing that the sounds of their voices were close to him. The yelling of orders turned to shouts of surprise, and then in a moment they all began to scream. Captain Sullivan dropped to his knees as the sound of a thousand screams filled his head. And then, as quick as they came, they left, leaving the captain in silence. He opened his eyes and looked around him, frantically searching for a sign that explained what he experienced. But nothing had changed. The boat still sat motionless in the water as it had the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that, and the day before that.

 

*          *          *

 

Six more weeks had passed on the Oklahoma without any movement or contact with the world. Captain Sullivan didn’t sleep at night anymore, he spent his time wandering the ship, making sure that it was in working order. He cleaned, maintained, and cleaned again every bit of the Oklahoma. Now, he was walking down the hallway on a lower level of the ship, ducking under bulkheads and shutting doors behind him.

As he walked onward he inspected the wounds on his arms, they had healed nicely, and he had recovered from the minor blood loss, but it would take some time before the scars healed. As he rounded the corner into the adjacent hall he stopped and looked at the left wall. Drawn in blood on the wall was a crude figure of a man, with a few distinct facial features and a hat. The blood had dried, and looked like it had been on the wall for about a week. Captain Sullivan greeted the member of his crew and demanded a report. After being satisfied with the report he dismissed the sailor and continued on down the hall. Behind the drawing of the man with a hat, there were numerous more drawings of men on the walls, all painted in blood. Each of them different from the other in some way, but all about the full size of a man from the ceiling to the floor. Captain Sullivan nodded to each of them as he passed by, making sure to greet every sailor. He stopped and talked to a few, making sure to remind them of their daily duties and double checking that they understood.

After he finished talking to the sailors, he walked through the door and up the stairs to the upper deck. It was late in the afternoon, and the sun was about to set on the horizon. Still, the water didn’t move, and the Oklahoma sat motionless in the ocean. As Captain Sullivan looked over the railing and out at the sea he looked up and watched the colors of the sky change from the blue of the day to the blood red orange of the sunset. He looked toward the east and there it was; a small black dot stained the featureless sky. Captain Sullivan froze in place and listened carefully to the unmistakable sound of an airplane engine, however faint, in the distance.            He ran back to his cabin and threw the door open. His cabin was completely clean, organized with all of his clothes put away and his desk without any clutter. He reached over the desk to grab his binoculars and ran out of the room, leaving the door open. As he came to a stop at the railing he looked through the binoculars to the east. At first all he saw was the color of the sky, as if someone were holding a blue piece of paper up to the lens of the binoculars. He moved them around slowly, scanning and waiting for the plane to suddenly come into view. When he finally found the plane he gasped and smiled. He brought the binoculars away form his face and started dancing, spinning in circles while throwing his arms around. But his smile disappeared as he looked at the plane again. It was moving away from the ship at an angle and, at the rate it was moving, would be over the horizon in less than a minute. Captain Sullivan began to panic and scream, yelling hopelessly after the departing aircraft. The emergency flare gun was below deck, and the knowledge that he couldn’t get to it in time broke his heart. Eventually after the plane left over the edge of the sea, he stopped yelling.

The sun was set by the time he turned away from the railing to go back to his cabin. He walked along the wall toward his open cabin door. It was still wide open and the light from inside lit up the deck around the doorway. Captain Sullivan turned and stepped through the doorway looking up to see his room. Everything was in complete disarray, his clothes were all over the floor, completely covering it, and his bed sheets were thrown across the room. He looked over at his bookshelf to see the books in a pile on the floor, and the model sailing boat that was on the top of the shelf was in splinters on top of the pile. He stood for a moment, shocked by what he saw. For eight weeks he had known exactly what was happening on the ship, he was the only one who could move or touch anything. But what he saw now proved in his mind that he wasn’t the only one on the ship. Whoever it was had to be close by, there was no way they could’ve gotten farther than a half length of the ship. He moved toward the doorway to go look for the person responsible. Everything on the ship was metal, if someone were moving around near him he knew he would hear the familiar clang of the metal floors. But as he stepped outside and listened like he had for eight months, he heard only silence.

 

*          *          *

 

            Another 2 months passed on the Oklahoma. Nothing. No calls on the radio. No planes. No boats. No clouds. No weather. No waves. The only sounds came from the generator when it was within earshot below deck, and the soft clanging of the metal floors as Captain Sullivan walked up and down the ship. He stood on the upper deck, staring at the rows of cargo containers. He had run out of food, and any food left in the containers that were on their way to Japan went rotten long ago. Captain Sullivan had clearly lost all hope of rescue; he stopped cleaning the ship, he stopped talking to his crew, he even stopped shaving. The first of the two previous months was the hardest, Captain Sullivan spent the day and night wandering the sublevels and muttering to himself. He occasionally would curl up on the floor against a wall and cry for hours. He would wail at first, crying out in desperation to anyone whom he hoped to god would hear him. Eventually he would give up and continue wandering, only to repeat the same sad routine over and over again.

            Standing now on the bow of the Oklahoma, he stared back at the deck of the ship. So many times he could remember standing in this spot, feeling the sea wind at his back while the ship surged ahead under power, and watching his crew move around the deck, working to make sure that the boat was ready for anything that might happen. Now he stood in dead silence as if frozen in time, wondering how it had managed to come to this.

            Captain Sullivan looked up and saw the man standing at the rear of the ship, atop the main deck against the forward railing. He was wearing a long coat, but Captain Sullivan couldn’t see anything else from afar. The captain’s eyes widened, and then he blinked hard as he realized what he was seeing. There stood a man, motionless across the ship, watching Captain Sullivan. The captain tried to yell for attention, only to realize that no words could come to his mouth. He had waited all this time to see another person, but something about this man gave the captain chills. Maybe it was the creepy way he had presented himself, completely unlike what the captain fantasized his rescuers would look like, or maybe it was the penetrating stare that almost forced Captain Sullivan to press his back to the railing behind him.

            The strange man turned to his left and walked towards the end of the deck, and then suddenly ducked into s doorway to go below deck. Only then, when he was out of sight did Captain Sullivan feel the strange oppressing sensation that the man gave him leave, allowing the captain to take off towards the other end of the ship in pursuit of the man. About halfway down the length of the ship the captain turned and went into a door leading to the lower deck that the man had gone down to. If the man had just gone inside, Captain Sullivan figured he would be around the corner of the hallway that the captain was now running down. At the end of the hallway the corner to the right would lead into another short hallway lined with doors to storage rooms.

            The captain turned the corner and as he looked around from the opposing wall to the end of the second hall he saw the tail of a coat flash as the strange man darted into one of the rooms on the left. Captain Sullivan approached the doorway slowly, he knew that the room had only one door and the strange man wouldn’t be able to escape. The captain placed his hands on the doorframe and leaned his head in slowly at an angle so that he could scan the room. Nothing was in the room but four lone crates in one corner stacked waist high. The captain went into the room and spun around, looking at every wall and every corner of the room. Completely empty. He was sure the man had entered the room, he was certain. Spending more than two months alone, the captain had developed an understanding that absolutely nothing in the ship moved except for what he touched, and he certainly saw the movement of the man in the doorway when he turned into the hall. He stopped spinning and his eyes settled on the pile of crates in the left corner. He took two step towards them, and when he was about to reach out towards the boxes he heard the unmistakable clang of a boot on the metal floor behind him in the hallway. The captain spun around just in time to see the door he came through slam shut. The captain stood still for a moment, confused and shocked by the sudden movement of the door and the loud sound it made as it crashed into place into the door frame. He started towards the door when he heard the grinding of the gears coming from the door, the sound of the large mechanical lock on the outside of the door being set into place. He threw himself against the door and began to yell, pounding at the door and clawing away at the door handle. He slammed his fists one after the other on the metal frame desperately trying to open the door. As he landed each blow, the next came weaker and weaker, slower and slower until he finally collapsed on the floor heaving and gasping for air. At first he was in denial, this wasn’t happening to him, it was just a delusion, he was just dreaming, its all a nightmare. But eventually as he waited for it to end, he realized that he wasn’t dreaming, he wasn’t hallucinating, and he wasn’t having delusions. Captain Sullivan was going to die alone on the Oklahoma. But he had been alone for months now, after all.

The Tutor by Academy Monthly

“Can someone other than Tom answer the question please?”

            I slowly dropped my hand and sunk into my chair. No one else raised their hand. I turned my head slightly to the left to catch the eye of Jaime beside me. She noticed me and I gestured toward my hands underneath the table where I held up three fingers, then eight. I looked back up at her, and I could see her processing. Come on, Jaime, I think, I mean thirty-eight, not eleven. Just raise your hand.

            “Alright, fine, Tom, give us the answer. I can’t wait all class,” Ms. Rowan said begrudgingly.

            I threw one last glance at Jaime but she was looking away. I sighed and replied, “Cellular respiration produces thirty-eight ATP”

            Jaime never spoke in class. I had only heard her voice once when I approached her after class in a fit of bravery. I waited outside of the classroom while she spoke to Ms. Rowan on the first day of school, partially out of curiosity and partially out of the need to make friends.

            “Dude, are you stalking me?” She asked when she saw me.

            “Uh, no. I just noticed that you’re the only other senior in the class. I don’t really know many other people and I’m certainly not about to make friends with the freshmen, so hi, I’m Tom. Short for Thomas, although I suppose you could’ve guessed that because what else would it be short for?”

            She shrugged and we started walking together. Her strides were longer than mine, and I struggled to keep up.  “I’m Jaime.”

            I waited for her to say more before I launched into my own story again. “I’ve already taken bio, you see, in middle school, actually. When I transferred here I wanted to take AP, but they didn’t offer it so I’m in regular bio and I just supplement it with the AP book so I can take the test in the spring. Plus they needed to fill up my schedule. Technically I already have enough credits to graduate but I thought, hey, why not get some college credit here while it’s still free?”

            She looked like she wanted to say something so I stopped. “Dude, you talk too much.”

            “Right. Sorry, I guess… Never mind. So why are you in the class then?”

            She stared me in the eyes with a vengeful look. Her eyes looked tired despite how piercingly blue they were. “I guess I’m just plain stupid.”

            Dumbfounded I stood there while she ducked into the girls’ bathroom. Three months later, she spoke to me again after that class when I gave her the answer. Instead of rushing away like usual, she waited for me.

            “You know, you could have just apologized. Like, three months ago. The next day, I mean the day after that one, I mean after we talked. You don’t have to make it up to me in answers.” Even though we were an aisle apart, she seemed to tower over me, the ends of her hair just reaching to where mine ended too.

            I wanted her to know that my aid wasn’t some kind of penance. I just didn’t want to have to answer for once. But she had a point. “You’re right, I’m sorry. For both, I guess. For showing off and for the answer.”

            She shrugged and stood there in silence. Searching for something to say, I frantically scanned her face. “You look tired,” I commented. I immediately regretted it, so I tried to make it better by adding, “It’s just, I think you should get enough sleep. Some people say that the eight-hour thing is BS, and that everyone has their own range of optimal sleep time, but they’re lying. At least for teenagers. You see, the frontal cortex of the brain is-“

            “You haircut makes your face look too round,” she insulted.

            “What?”

            “You give me advice, I pay it back. It’s too long. It has other problems too, but you can start with a haircut.”

            Another girl popped her head into the classroom and yelled, “C’mon, they have French fries today. If we hurry the line won’t be too long.” Again, I found myself frozen as Jaime walked away from me. I pondered what she had said before, about being stupid. I knew the comment was out of spite, but the way she said it made it sound like she believed it. Yet, twice in a row she left me speechless.

            A month later I got deferred from Harvard. My counselor claimed I did everything I could, but I didn’t care because that didn’t change the decision. Fuming, I tried to make sense of the only other thing I couldn’t control.

            “Hey, Jaime, we haven’t had such great conversations in the past. Can we start over?” I requested. It was after I spoke I noticed she was close to tears.

            “I can talk later, I mean if you really want to it can, I mean now’s not the time. I have a paper due next period and it sucks.”

            “Well, I can give it a read if you'd like. This isn’t what you think. Even if I hadn’t ever insulted you, I would be offering to edit your paper because I don’t really have anything better to do. Plus editing other work makes mine better.”

            “I have a tutor for that.” She started walking faster, but I wouldn’t watch her brown hair sway as she walked away from me for a third time.

            “Your tutor isn’t showing up before the next period. Just let me look it over.”

            “You can’t!” she yelled. Heads turned and her eyes welled. I pulled her into the closest classroom, which was luckily empty.

            She started crying and her breathing picked up. Soon she was on the ground, muttering to herself. I repeated her name and useless encouragement until I picked up the courage to sit next to her and comfort her.

            After she calmed down, I whispered, “I don’t want to be invasive but that seemed like a panic attack. It’s a common symptom of anxiety and I know this sounds-“

            “Don’t diag- I mean don’t tell me what I have. I know what I have. Here, read my paper, and if you’re as smart as you act you’ll get it.”

            I gingerly picked up her paper from where she had thrown it and read the first sentence. “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie uses the second person in her short story “The Thing Around Your Neck” to highlights familiaritys of differences in cultures in a world where people regularly travel to lots of countries.” Afraid to say anything, I kept reading. After reading the introduction I announced, “Dyslexia. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Plus, grammatically it needs help, but the ideas are brilliant.”

            “It took me a week and a half to read and understand the story. You don’t want to know how long it took me to write that paper. I go to tutoring every single day. I memorize piles and piles of grammar and words, but I can never put them together.”

            I thought about the damage done in her essay and knew there was no way I could fix it before the next period. But I had to help the girl who had left me helpless after every conversation. “When do you get to school?” I asked.

            “Seven thirty, why?”

            “At seven thirty every day we’re going to meet in the bio room. We’re going to take this paper and we’re going to go through every single sentence until you understand how to fix everything and you can explain to me why.”

            “That’s absurd.”

            “It’ll help, I promise. I can tell you tutor isn’t doing it. They probably don’t have time, which is fine. I’m sure you have other things to worry about, but I do have time.”

            “One of us will quit. Either you won’t have, I mean you won’t be able to be patient, or I’ll get frustrated and leave.”

            “It’s worth a try, isn’t it?”

            She looked at me with reddened eyes and grabbed her paper away from me. It ripped, and I sat dumbfounded with a corner of paper in my hands. “This was stupid. I should never have talked to you,” she yelled and she walked away from me again.

            The next morning I found her in the cafeteria, studying. Despite the many times I had been on the receiving end of her frustration, she looked angrier than I had ever seen her. I sat across from her and without looking up she said, “I thought I told you no.”

            “It doesn’t even have to be the paper, just let me help,” I begged.

            “Why? Do you really think I need more help?”

            “Like I said yesterday, your tutor can’t make it to school.”

            “What, so you’ll just follow me around for all, I mean the rest of my life? Plus, people trained to help people like me even think I’m lost; so what makes you think you’ll help?”

            Unsure how to respond, I looked down at her work and immediately noticed a mistake. “Transcription comes first, not translation.”

            “They look the same to me,” she muttered.

            “See, I can help,” I said with a smirk.

            Our meetings became a ritual. Every morning I found her in the same spot. Every morning she refused my help but eventually gave in when I found something wrong with her work. I started to notice patterns of what she had trouble with and words she could never read on the first try no matter how many times we went over them. Every day I broke her defenses and discovered her limitations.

            I told myself to stay patient. I knew the reward of my work with her, and I forced myself to push through as much as I could until I had stretched myself too far.

            “No, the plasmodesmata connect the cytoplasms of adjacent trunk cells,” I corrected. I felt exasperated from constant repetition of the topic.

            “English. Please,” she gasped.

            I groaned. “Well what’s the cytoplasm?”

            “Hell if I know, I get it confused with the other one.”

            “Cytokines?”

            “Maybe.”

            “Come on, Jaime. We did this yesterday, and the day before that. Just think about what would be relevant to trees.” I leaned back in my chair and stared at her, waiting for an answer.

            “Can we just stop for today,” she asked.

            “No.”

            “Oh come on, you’re not even that good of a tutor. We have five minutes left, can we just, I mean can’t you just let it go?”

            I took no time responding to her insult. I could fight her off after learning her arsenal during our meetings. “Then why do you keep coming back?”

            “I go away with more answers than I come with. To the homework, I mean. I’m not actually learning anything though.”

            “Well that’s clear.”

            “Then why do you keep coming back?” I cursed myself for letting her surprise me after all this time. She leaned toward me and yelled, “What do you want?”

            The students near us started giggling and mocking us. I said the first thing that came into my head. “I want to get into Harvard.”

            “Oh so adding tutoring to your already large, I mean your full resume will push you over the edge then? You could go anywhere else, to any college, so just pick one already.”

            “I just worked so hard for it.” I had to beat her at her own game but her comment made me think of all the acceptance letters in the corner of my desk at home.

            “And I haven’t? What do you want, Tom. Give me a real answer. Or do you think I’m too stupid to understand?”

            “That’s just it. Why do you think you’re so stupid? I mean, all I’ve tried to do is figure you out and I can’t, yet you seem to know everything about me, you seem to know just how to hurt me,” I confessed.

            As I spoke she started to smile. She gathered her books, said, “I’ll be using my professional tutor from now on,” and walked away from me.

The Time I (Almost) Killed Innocence by Academy Monthly

Everything is sugarcoated.

 

I realized this at a young age, the age most children still believe that Santa is real and fairytales will materialize out of thin air and their prince charming is around the corner. My parents don’t hold anything back. They believe that, as a parent, it is their responsibility to educate me, and in order to educate me they have to show me the world through an unfiltered lens. But that lens can sometimes be unforgivingly harsh. 

 

 “Reality” as seen through my parents’ lens constituted of telling me, most memorably, that the Easter Bunny wasn’t real, Sleeping Beauty was a story about being raped, and never take lollipops from strangers. In a world where “ignorance is bliss,” I used to hate not being shielded from reality.

 

“Let me be uneducated!” I cried, “let me be a kid!” I wanted my youth. I wanted to be able to come out of a movie and not see the “truth.” I wanted to bask in that carefree, Disney movie, prince charming will come, “Buddy just went on a vacation” believing youth that my other friends had. 

 

After my parents exposed me, they normally followed up with “we must be unforgivingly truthful, for knowledge leads to understanding, and understanding is the highest compliment.” 

 

But is knowing any better? I thought not, for a while. It weighed heavily on me those times when I was sitting in a secluded silence that knowing brings, whilst my friends were sitting, excitedly whispering on the monkey-bars at recess about Neverland, or passing notes in class on the pink-sparkle of the Tooth-Fairy’s dress. It was when my math teacher in third grade devoted a whole class period to talking about the magic of Santa, because how could he get to all those houses in just one night?

 

Growing up, I didn’t want the heaviness of all the hurt and the pain. People are cruel. People are mean. My parents, in their choice to tell me of matters that impact my feelings, were especially mean. I hated them for a while. 

 

It was on one such occasion that my parents said, “We need you to be especially nice to her this week, ok?” 

 

I was eight, and Alexa was one of my closest friends. But she too lived in a fantasy, unbeknownst to the realities around her. One of these sugarcoated happenings was her father. He had been valiantly battling heart disease for the past few years, and it wasn’t looking up. This week he was getting open-heart surgery. There was a 55% survival rate, my parents said. He might not be back to pick her up. 

 

“As far as Alexa knows, her parents are going on a work trip. Again.” They told me.

 

Another work trip, another week of white lies while we wait in an arduous silence for the phone call that will bring the verdict. 

 

I watch her mom set down Alexa’s bags, and her wrists look as if they’ll snap. She murmurs “hello” that only a person with such a tired face could say. I’ve learned not to be startled anymore. Today seemed worse than other years. Increasingly drawn out lines mark her sagging face which gives way to grey eyes that are held up by some imperceptible force, for the frail gaunt outline of her figure certainly wasn’t bolstering them. I saw in her fading image that stress kills a person. We watched her lose color over the years with each “work trip”, slowly, and now all at once.

 

Alexa was the only person in the room who didn’t know, so we put on our masks and spoke through forced language, chatting here and there about the weather, abiding by the common courtesies that ignorance brings. 

 

 I had to lie for the rest of the week. My parents called them “white lies,” because apparently it was okay to abandon my morals in order to protect her. But she was my friend, and with each day of skirting around the subject I was becoming increasingly more aware of just how wrong it was that she didn’t know. She was my good friend, I didn’t like that I couldn’t be honest with Alexa about her own family.  

 

Seven days turned into eleven, due to complications. He had gotten an infection during the procedure, and was losing blood. He went into a coma, my parents said. 

 

 As the days groaned on we watched movies and went shopping, played with our Barbie dolls and baked cookies. She seemed more and more like a child. She was on the other side of the line, uneducated and immature while I was here taking the weight for the both of us. 

 

There is a point where the line is too far, and I knew we had reached it when were sitting around, waiting for the cookies to be done and she said “I wonder why the meeting is going so long. Perhaps they loved Europe so much they’ve forgotten about me, and decided to stay!”

 

The smell of the cookies was suffocating, and I decided that I wasn’t going to keep her on the dark side.

 

“Actually Alexa, your father is not on a work trip enjoying the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower, he is lying lifeless on a hospital bed, dependent off of a machine, an electrical machine, because his heart is infected and his brain isn’t working. And as we speak, he is hooked up to that machine and his food is being inserted through a plastic tube in his veins and he needs a separate machine to pump air into his lungs through a tube because he can’t breathe on his own. The beep-beep-beep of the heart monitor will stay steady for a while, and he might die, but you wouldn’t know because your parents believe in fantasy, in sugar-coated realities, in white lies.” 

 

“Han, are you ok?” Her question brings me back.

“I-

No, I am not okay. She is my friend and I’m tired of agreeing with everything. I can’t bear the weight of this statue alone, and it is starting to crush me.

 

“Alexa,” I start, already relieved that I will be taking off some of the burden. “There’s something that, as your friend, I feel inclined to tell you.”

 

“Um, ok.” She wavers nervously with her words, trying in her content brain to picture what it is that could possibly be wrong. “Sure, what is it?”

 

I take a gulp, try my hardest to concentrate on her nose. I love her and ignorance is not bliss, ignorance is not bliss, she will thank me for taking her mind off the clouds of fantasy.

 

“Your parents, they—

 

Her nose, her nose, try her nose, come on, it will be easier without facing her eyes… 

 

I succumbed to the sweet lure of her loving eyes and stopped. I was thriving off of this excitement but when I peered in the depths of her eyes I saw the placid, baby blue ocean that was rippling on, without a cloud in sight. I was about to bring an unending wash of vast darkness and unstoppable drowning and I could see the tsunami that was inching ever closer on the horizon. 

 

I was casually sorry, but then I didn’t care. It wasn’t right. She deserved to know. 

 

“Your parents—

 

“Han, what is it. You’re confusing me.” 

 

That’s exactly what I was doing. I was confusing her. I was about to end the happiness that would start a life full of confusion, anger, resentment and depression, until she understood as I did that day. 

 

“Your parents—they must be having a good time is all.” I said, with a smile.  

 

My parents saw me, and silently thanked me. The hurt of the world wasn’t as much after that night. I understood why they did it. As a child, I could only see the narrow-minded belief that it was unfair, being unfalteringly, brutally real. But they had in fact respect and faith that knowing would mature me. It did. 

 

I almost told her that day, traded my maturity for innocence, my parents’ respect for childhood. I had equated not knowing with bad. But it wasn’t wrong or right. It was a choice. Alexa’s parents loved her so much that they couldn’t tell her. I loved her too, and I knew that she wasn’t ready to know. And I also knew that someday she would exchange her fantasy for an unfiltered life on the other side of the line. Someday she would have to cross it, and enter into that world and become a cynic for a bit. She would hate her parents for not having told her. 

 

At least for a little while. 

The Truth by Academy Monthly

The long holiday was over. Back to the same old same old. I opened the door to my standard office building full of nonpermanent walls closing us off from one another. I sat my stuff down at my empty desk. I had planned to put some pictures up to make it less grey, but I forgot. Three months later I gave up. That was a year ago. My office was many shades of grey, which is why I spent most of my time in the break room.  It was less gloomy. It was painted a light blue with white tables and one navy blue sofa. I counted the carpet tiles as I walked to the break room. Fifteen. I turned in to the door way and there they sat. I knew I was going to run in to them eventually. We have had problems in the past. I didn’t think this would start as soon as Christmas break ended. It was only the third day of my new year’s resolution diet and there sat the box of donuts. Not just name brand donuts, no, of course a freshly made box of donuts. 

    They just looked at me. They wanted me, and I wanted them more. I use to have a close personal relationship with donuts. We would meet daily in the break room, but that was in the past. I am stronger than that now. Every kind of donut you could possibly think of was sitting in that light pink box. Glazed, Vanilla, Vanilla with sprinkles, Chocolate, Chocolate with sprinkles, French cruller, Double Chocolate, Jelly, Boston crème, Cream-filled, Apple Fritter, even Cider. I knew who brought them too. John. His cube was two down from mine. He was always saying hi to everyone acting like he owned the place. A lot of people like John because he is charismatic, but I see right through it. I was so outraged by these unhealthy snacks. I stormed to John’s office. I had something to say and he was about to hear it, but he wasn’t there. I went back to my office and sat in silence. 

I thought about that French cruller. If I ate it, no one would know. It would almost be as if I didn’t eat it. Dave would know though. He always knew. One time I had half of a cookie because I didn’t want to waste it, and that night, when I went out with him he knew. He pointed out that I had a glow about me whenever I ate junk food. It was true. He was mad that I broke my diet, but he was madder that he wasn’t the one who got to eat the cookie. He was stronger than I was and I loved him for it. We talked about our future together. We dreamed about a little wedding on a cliff in Hawaii at sunset. All the bridesmaids would wear light pink dresses and the groomsmen light pink bow ties to match. My white dress would be a mermaid cut with and sweetheart neckline. After the wedding we would buy an old farmhouse, fix it up, and make it our own. I wanted a French country style, and he said he wants anything I want. I loved him.

If I ate this donut he would know and be mad. He never broke his diet and I know that because he never lied. His new years resolution was also to go on a diet. If I ate this donut we will probably fight about how I need to have more confidence in myself. 

I hated when we fought. It just reminded me of my parents fighting. My dad would be out late at night. My mom would wait up for him in their room. When he stumbled through the door at two in the morning, she would walk down stairs and just start yelling. She thought my brothers and I were asleep. We weren’t. She would yell at him until he passed out. She would leave him there and go cry in her room alone. A couple of times my two brothers and I would creep downstairs and put him on the sofa with a trash can next to him. He couldn’t help he was an alcoholic. That’s what my mom didn’t understand. 

I only ever talked to her once about his problem. “He can’t help himself, he’s sick,” I quietly, and as politely as possible said. 

“He can help himself! He knows damn well what he’s doing to himself, and this family for that. If your saying he can’t see what he’s doing then you’re the sick one!” 

That was the last time I ever said anything to her because that night she left. I don’t blame anyone except her for walking out. My dad needed help and she couldn’t see that.

I was over-thinking this donut thing. If I ate it Dave and I might fight, but nothing compared to the degree of fighting of my parents. Nothing was. I decided to eat it. I walked briskly to the break room before I changed my mind. I immediately went for the French cruller, but it wasn’t there. John. Maybe it was a sign that I shouldn’t eat the donut. I decided it wasn’t. I went for the vanilla with sprinkles. I ate it and instantly regretted it. 

Dave was to good for me. He never did anything wrong. Always on time, always polite, always generous, always honest, and always, always told the truth. When we first started dating he told me that he just got out of a long-term relationship with a co-worker, Jenna. He said Jenna wasn’t stable after they broke up so he still time to time talked with her to make sure she was okay. It was true. From time to time I would see her name pop up on his phone. I didn’t think anything of it because he was so open and honest. He would tell me if she was trying to get back together with him. 

I wanted to call him. Apologize. He never liked me to call him during the day because he was busy. I felt like I had to this time though. He had to know now how sorry I was that I broke my diet. He had to know before he figured it out on his own. I walked back to my office and dialed his number.

A girl picked up. “Hello, is Dave there?” 

“He’s busy right now can I ask who’s calling?” 

“This is Sophie, can I ask who I am speaking to?” 

“This is Jenna, his wife.” I dropped the phone.

The New Identity by Academy Monthly

I think about heading back to Greenpoint, Brooklyn and I feel a pit in my stomach. Not just the kind you get from being on the top of the Empire State Building and looking down to see all the people as tiny as ants. It’s the kind of pit in your stomach you get when you fear making the wrong decision. As I walk down the steps I begin to see the vibrant graffiti on the walls and the smell that reminds me of my younger self. I sit on the dirty bench and can’t help but to guess which commuters will turn out to be successful individuals, or who will fail as they strive towards success. I shuffle through my purse trying to find my Fashion magazine, which features an article I wrote, but instead I come across something unexpected. A photograph of Harper and myself titled “Kat and her favorite sister,” which is pretty ironic, I have to say, because she happens to be my only sibling.

The photo was taken probably when I was around fifteen. Wow! What was I wearing? I can’t believe I let Harper persuade me into thinking that outfit was “In style!” I looked as if I’ve never even heard of the fashion magazine Vogue.Then, just when I am about to crumple the picture and shove it into the compartment in my purse, I see there is another piece of paper. Attached to the picture is a subway ticket dated six years ago from the Greenpoint Avenue G station to Manhattan, New York. I try to avoid thinking about that night because it will make my decision extremely easy, but the thought of it occupies my head.

I was just sixteen, but I had already ventured through every part of Brooklyn. Harper promised she’d take me to Flatbush with her, although I knew it wasn’t somewhere I should had

been at sixteen. The streets were dark, except for a dim streetlamp that was lingering in the distance. Nobody my age was seen in a radius of ten miles. I remember the stares and commentary between people as we walked by. Harper just ignored it per usual, but I slowly tucked away the purse I was carrying inside my jacket and ducked my head to avoid the slightest bit of eye contact. Harper never avoided the dangerous areas. She’d always say, “Adventure awaits in every borough in New York.” Suddenly Harper took a turn, and I was forced to follow behind. We walked up to a run­down building and she opened a rusty door. It turned out to be a bar, which did not surprise me. As we walked in she seemed to know more people than I expected; Was this her usual spot or something? I remember she said, “Come on Kat, it's fine just take a seat at the bar I’ll be over in a second.”

“But what if someone says something!” I asked in a bitter tone.

“Oh, they won't! Sometimes you just have to fend for yourself,” she replied. She was talking to a huddle of people near the pool table, mostly men it seemed.

I asked the bartender for a drink, but he just gave me a blank stare and said, “You seem a little young to be in need of a drink.”

“Nope I’m actually 21,” I said while secretly slipping him a 20 dollar bill. He rolled his eyes, accepted it, and turned around to get the drink.

As I looked back at the pool table I tried to find where Harper went. My eyes searched the whole bar and there was no sign of her or the men she was with. “Damn her!” I shouted as I hit the bar tabletop. Now that I think of it, I guess this is what she meant when she said, “fend for yourself.” To this day I still can’t believe she left me in one of the most dangerous places in Brooklyn. While I sat there the noise grew louder and my eyes wandered, observing all the

people inside the bar. I remember repeating in my head, “Is this who I want to be when I’m older? Leaving my younger sister in a bar and claiming it to be an ‘adventure.’ Who does that!” Harper’s adventures began to fade into problems she couldn’t stay away from. She had no responsibilities, no job, and refused to get help. That wasn’t who I wanted to be. So I got up, wobbled down from the bar stool, and left. I ran as quickly as my old ripped converses could move, although it felt as if I was running in the NYC Marathon. I took the first subway I could find to Manhattan, and never returned to Brooklyn. I knew I had to change my lifestyle, which meant leaving my sister behind. All the things I regret, the bad decisions I made, were because of the bad influence she’d had on me.

“The 8:15 Subway to Greenpoint, Brooklyn has just arrived” repeats over the loudspeaker, and I try to shake any more thoughts of Harper out of my head. I look up and scan the room, sure someone would be looking at me wondering why I was in such deep thought, but nobody was. That's one good thing about Manhattan, everybody just minds their own business and doesn’t bother you. I stand up and walk to the beginning of the yellow line at the side of the subway. I hear the subway arriving and my heart starts beating. As the train roars by a thousand images flash through my head. The drinking, the partying my sister always did, but also the images of her sweet smile. Then, worst of all, the image of my sister lying in her casket, her pale face resting, and her smile faded. I can picture all the friends she had met in bars throughout Brooklyn crowded around her in sorrow, weeping. Or maybe the funeral was empty, and she was all alone.

The door to the subway slams open, but I just stare at it. Commuters rush by and around me, but I don’t move. I think about my new life, the job I have. I am finally where I want to be.

The subway door slams shut, and the train roars away from me. I turn around, and realize my decision was made. I stare one more time at the graffiti on the walls and the trash lying on the ground before I begin to walk up the steps. The subway was almost as dreary as a rainy day in Manhattan. I guess I’ll never know who ended up attending the funeral. As I walk onto Madison Avenue I fear the guilt seizing within me, but I fear my old lifestyle more. 

The Frontiersman by Academy Monthly

Winter, 1823

 

They came for us when the first beam of sunlight appeared. If it weren’t for the good eye of my friend Mr. Fitzgerald, the occupier of the position of the night sentry, all 25 of us would be dead, instead of just the 19. I knew they would come. Just a few short hours ago we were still feasting with the chief, who, had granted us the protection we wanted. We would need it. The other tribes were unpredictable. There were stories about what they had done to other expeditions that had come this far. The worst was the one with the fingernails. The savages believed that a man would experience the most pain when it would be applied to him in small measures and slowly. They would take these clippers they had, and gently take a man’s nails from his hands. They would make the men they captured beg for their own deaths. In order not to attract their attention, we had set up a small camp two miles away from the river, on the other side of which lay the camps of the tribes. We left our boat farther down the river, leaving it out of sight. It was then that we realized we were in the Great Chieftain’s territory. 

We had heard many stories about the savage tribes but very few about that of the Chieftain. The only thing the men in Washington had told us was that he was an old warrior who commanded the respect of all the tribes in the area, but that he was a just man, and that we might be able to negotiate with him. I told Mr. Fitzgerald to stay back with the other men and that if I did not return within the hour, to take them and head back down river. I took only Fritz with me. He was one of the men hired to work on the expedition with Mr. Fitzgerald and I. Fritz was hired due to his strength and knowledge of the area, having traveled here on previous expeditions. He was a younger man, but he towered over the rest of us. He was large and burly, with chiseled features. He rarely spoke, and I suspect he was a bit dull in the head, but he had a sort of warm kindness to him. I was taking him along because he could hold off the Chieftain’s men as I ran to warn the others, if it came to that. When we arrived, we were greeted not with hostility, but with hospitality. The Chieftain seemed to be very amused by the sheer size of Fritz, and I was happy to hear that he had a translator. I told the chief it was urgent he grant us protection as we make our way upriver since the other tribes were a danger to us. The Chieftain informed me that he was happy to do so, but that his control over the tribes was waning. The Chieftain knew of our rifles and wanted them in exchange for his protection so that he might keep the other tribes in line. I was happy to oblige, and was given leave to return with my men and my weapons. 

Once we had gotten out of sight of the Chieftain’s camp, I stopped Fritz in his tracks. While I was speaking with the Chieftain I noticed Fritz glancing at the Chieftain’s daughter. I knew what he was thinking. We had been journeying for months now, and it had been long since he had known the touch of a woman. I forbade Fritz from so much as speaking to her. I could not tell if he took my words seriously. I began to worry that negotiations would fail if Fritz tried anything funny. Before I could finish my lecture, we had arrived back at base camp. I instructed Mr. Fitzgerald to gather up all our men and guns and to follow me to the Chieftain’s village. Upon arriving, the Chieftain informed me that he was pleased with our delivery, but that we would have to wait a few days before he could escort us through the territory of the other tribes. He wanted us to train his men in the “art” of gun fighting, to which I quickly agreed. The Chieftain, satisfied, announced that it was time for celebration of our agreement, loudly bellowing for a feast to be prepared. We celebrated into the night. The Chieftain regaled me with tales of the great battles he fought in his youth, while I told of my experiences as a trader. Me, The Chieftain, and all of our men grew weary from celebration as the night went on. I was so comfortable in these surroundings; I doubted anything could possibly interrupt our peace. That’s when the scream of a woman woke us out of our state of bliss. 

Everyone ran to where the sound had come from, the riverbank. When we reached the source of the scream, what I saw nearly made me weep. The Chieftain’s daughter lay dead before us, two arrows through her heart. Fritz had three arrows in his back and was fighting off 5 men at once. These men wore different symbols on their arms and faces than the men of the Chieftain. I knew that these were the savages we had heard of. There were many more of them. They must have been attracted by the noise Fritz and the Chieftain’s daughter had made celebrating. I saw the Chieftain furiously rush past me, with one of my flintlock pistols in his hand, a weapon he had never held. Before he let out a single shot, an arrow from a bow that I did not glimpse cut him down. I shouted for my men to flee the scene and return to our camp. I did not check to see if anyone followed me. I arrived at our base alone; feeling my body had weakened from exerting myself so much in my hasty escape. Mr. Fitzgerald arrived with what was left of the men with a heavily wounded Fritz among them. I wanted to start packing and head back to the boat as the other tribes would know we were in the area, and they would be motivated by the death of the Chieftain to strike, but Mr. Fitzgerald reasoned that all the men were exhausted, and that I should allow them some rest. We also needed time to tend to Fritz’s wounds. He argued we could leave in the morning, which I was forced to agree with when all the men backed him. I fell into shallow, uneasy sleep for what felt like minutes. 

I woke to the yells of Mr. Fitzgerald, that he had seen hundreds of the natives gathered and charging towards our camp. I emerged from my tent and into the cold barely clothed. I screamed at the men to abandon everything and run for our boat. I ran barefoot through the icy ground, never turning back to see if anyone had followed, all the while hearing screams of hate and of pain. When I got to the boat, I cut the lines keeping it ashore. It was then that I saw Mr. Fitzgerald and three others carrying Fritz towards me. I joined them in carrying Fritz onto our vessel and then helped them in casting the boat from shore. Seeing as it took 5 men to commander the boat, we had to leave Fritz unattended while we made our escape down the river. Once we were out of sight of the pursuing tribes, I went to check on Fritz. When he did not respond to my words, and after determining he had no breath to him, I realized the boy was lost. I had lost most of my men, my supplies and my navigator. I was in greater danger from the tribes now more than ever, but I was no longer afraid to die. My thinking was interrupted by the words of Mr. Fitzgerald. “Mr. Glass?” he asked, visibly concerned, his voice trembling. Without turning I replied in a hoarse whisper. “I’m finished”. 

Cycle by Academy Monthly

The alarm went off today at 6:00 just as it normally does. I wake up today just like any other day. I go to the bathroom, then proceed to brush my teeth and jump in the shower. I then put on my uniform and go to my place of education. I finish all the work I procrastinated the night before on the bus and before school. I arrive about 45 minutes early because my bus comes much earlier than the time school starts. As I proceed to my first period class I look around to see all the other students completely zoned out of the class. It's sickening. They may be thinking about something as trivial as the dreams they had last night or debating something of actual value, which I highly doubt. I have never understood why students of such gifted intellectual ability would waste their time studying such unimportant things such as algebra, science or foreign language. They worry about all these idealisms and then wonder why their lives are so trivial and uninteresting. I find them hypocrites. 

All of a sudden I hear a heavy sigh.

“John please do not zone out like that when I'm going over the material in the next test.”

“Yes Mr. Smith. I apologize.”

I go into the hallway and proceed to sit down on a couch. I have a recreational period, which most of the victims of this place use to further their knowledge in their assigned subjects. I usually either roam around debating some philosophical question in my head or put headphones on and listen to some of the better albums of all time. It’s usually Pink Floyd, as I find today’s unreasonable pointless music to be putrid. 

There is one part of the day when I am not so judgmental of everyone else’s clear flaws and forget the stereotypical minds of my fellow classmates. Oh how I hate calling them that as I do not believe they are equals of mine. However, I suppose it is the proper term to call them. Sorry, I just became sidetracked. The time of the day where I forget everyone else’s mental flaws is during history class. There is a girl in that class who I suppose I admire. Her name is Rebecca. I feel such sadness towards her. No one as kind hearted and as perfect as her should be part of this continuously hypocritical world. She is trapped in this endless cycle of hypocrisy, and I am powerless to free her.

As the final bell chimes I walk out of the school to the bus. On the way there I see a group of larger upperclassman beating up on a weaker but nimble freshman. I despise bullying. Not because it creates social classes or weakens the victim’s self-image. I hate it so much because of the feeling of importance it gives the bully. They think that they are above others because of their superior physical strength. I can see through them. I can see their pathetic, unimportant, and useless lives. Existing only to feed of the pain of another. They are like insects. 

I ride the bus home. I walk in my house. 

“Honey, how was your day?” my mother asks.

“Just as usual mother,” I reply laconically.

“What did you learn?”

I then repeat everything I heard my chemistry teacher say, which leaves my mother with a blank face. I then go to my room, lay down on my bed, and try to understand everything. I repeat the same cycle every day. Every day is just a preparation for the next. Which in turn is a preparation for something greater. High school in general is just a preparation for college. Which is just a preparation for the working life. Which is a preparation for retirement. Which is a preparation for death. This cycle goes through my head over and over again, and I cannot take it. I do not want to be a part of this system. Every day I search for an answer, but I’m still not sure what my question really is. Then I repeat the process again the next day. I see all these flaws and problems with the cycle, and I have no way to take myself out of it. I’m losing my mind. 

Suddenly a sense of relief floods over me. I still have a while to make a decision and break through this. Maybe all these people will change, who knows?

I sigh to myself as I say "Tomorrow is another day."

On Women and Weakness by Academy Monthly

Last night I dreamt of warriors in dresses, of women marked with scattered tattoos, of unmade faces, of white teeth. I dreamt of long hair, of drums that mimicked heartbeat, of rough edges, of dance. My dreams told stories of children hiding in tall grass, of holding hands when no one is looking, of shy smiles, of crocodile tears. But when I woke up I am met by a dark red stain in my underwear, a pain in my stomach, and a grievance in the back of my throat. 

 

When my eyelids opened, my mouth opened as well. Through the low grumble of an early-morning voice, I told the audience of my empty bedroom that woman cannot be weak. I told my pillow that if the only reasonable solution to my bleeding genitalia was a piece of cotton fastened to a string then there must be something inherently strong in women. I told my bed sheets that my post-bar-fight-feeling abdominals were not enough to keep me in bed. I told my desk that women are bodybuilders; that if woman can compile cells to build life, then I could at least get dressed. I stood up to tell my wardrobe that if Queen Elizabeth could lead a country while on her period, then I could at least look decent while on mine. I told my bookcase that if Mrs. Duggar could have 19 kids (and counting), then I could at least walk downstairs to the kitchen and grab a granola bar. I told my makeup collection that today was not the day. I told my mirror that I looked damn good. And after I told all of the objects just who I was, I embraced my rejected insides with an Advil and a piece of cotton fastened to a string. This is strength, but don’t forget your heels.

Crossdresser by Academy Monthly

Ouch, Ouch, Ouch. Plucking out these itty-bitty hairs does take some work. I mean, my hand is sort of trembling. I’m so nervous for tonight. Oh no. Here come the sweats. I cannot get that dress dirty. I just can’t. This is my time to shine. What is Susan going to think of me? Is she going to break up with me because I’ve been lying to her this whole time? I’ve never met anyone like myself. Not a single soul. Ouch. There goes another hair. Each hair I take out feels like I’m getting closer and closer to this moment. I can see that dress in the mirror. It’s staring at me like a hawk. Ouch. My face hurts, but at least that was the last one. There are still some hairs on my skin, but not too many. I should’ve shaved instead. I mean, I did shave under my arms. You absolutely cannot have bad arms. All righty, I’m all done with step one. Let’s practice the walk. Heel. Toe. Heel. Toe. One foot in front of the other will take you to wherever you wanna go. That’s what my mother used to say to me until I told her. Then it looked like her feet were dancing. Dancing away from me. I think she needed some time. Boy, I hope Susan doesn’t need time. Let’s practice again. Heel. Toe. Heel. Toe. You’ve got this. I’ve reached my dress. That midnight black dress. It’s full of mystery, I swear. I don’t know what people might think of it when I show them for the first time. Oh my. I totally forgot. Where’s my wig? It’s gotta be here somewhere. Ah ha. Found it. Perfect. Everything’s coming together. Dress; check. Wig; check. Shoes; check. Self-confidence; not checked. Darn it. I don’t have make-up. I mean, I don’t really need to have it because it covers people up, and I wanna show me. Boy, I hope Susan doesn’t run away. It would kill me. It really would. All right, I’m done getting dressed. Should I brush my teeth and make them pearly white? Or should I keep them how they are? I mean, I want to disguise myself, but not too much. Oh boy. I’m finished. I’m looking at myself in the mirror.  I look different. But not too different. That’s key. I want to look like a woman, but not too feminine. Deep breathes. You’ve got this. Ding-Dong. Oh no. There’s Susan. I walk over carefully so I won’t fall. That would embarrass me. I’m opening the door. She’s looking at me. Why are her arms out? Is she trying to hit me from both sides? Oh no. She’s walking towards me. I’m so done. She’s wrapping her arms around me, almost like a hug. I’m shaking. She’s standing on her tippy toes. Why is she standing on her tippy toes? She’s close to my ear now. I can hear her breathing. It’s very strange. I think she’s trying to tell me something. I think she said, “I’m so proud of you.” Whew. She’s proud of me. What a relief. I whisper back “Thank you for supporting me.” She’s grabbing my hand now. I hope she isn’t trying to pull me down. She’s giving me a little tug. Uh oh. I’m going down. She’s saying something to me again. “Let’s go get a drink. I’m so proud of you. So, so proud.” The nerves are out. I’m finally breathing. Whew. This is me. This is really me. 

An Open Letter to My Childhood Bully by Academy Monthly

I wish I could forgive you, but I know that I probably never will. I know that it’s not all your fault. If bullying is a cycle, I’m glad it’s ending with me. Because nobody deserves what you did to me, not even me. It took a while for me to learn that. Eight years, actually. It took a lot of cuts and a lot of tears, and I think, today I’m learning to accept it.

 

---

 

Specificity isn’t paramount to my story. It was very typical. I don’t feel special for having been bullied. Imagine the bully you’ve met in every other tragic tale, maybe your own.

 

When friends recount to me my transformation, they masquerade an insult to one of my past selves as a compliment to present me. I’m still that little girl you couldn’t stick up for. Defending myself was a feat, but I don’t understand why I was the only one trying. I know I haven’t always been incredibly personable. I know that. I’m okay with that. I’ve heard that my present self is the best version of me, better than any of my past selves. But I still love that little girl, and I decide to defend her, as well as all of my other ghosts. She’s died and I want to honor her memory.

 

My very new boyfriend, on our first date, told me he didn’t stick up for me when my childhood bully publicly, and anonymously, harassed me earlier this year. He said that he knows I could defend myself (though I wasn’t present), and that now he would defend me.

To everyone who would now defend me: as for now, I’m just fine on my own. The shells of yesteryear were the versions in distress. Nobody helped me when I needed it the most. None of the bystanders to my daily abuse took a stand at my weakest, and now, feeling my strongest, they’ve decided that they are capable of providing me with the support I once required. 

 

In middle school, I made the decision that on graduation day, I would kick my bully in the balls. I know, and I’ve always known, that rising above his torture was the only socially-appropriate choice, but I can’t talk to him, and I worry that no one else will convey that acting in a truly cruel manner is simply unacceptable. Obviously, I’m not actually going to do it. I never though that violence would help. Part of me really hates that he won’t ever understand how he made me feel. If I don’t kick him in the balls, I won’t do anything, and I won’t kick him in the balls. So, I won’t do anything.

 

I don’t feel sad on his behalf or empathize with him for the challenges that made him go cold. I wouldn’t excuse his torment if it happened to someone else, and I won’t excuse it because it happened to me. My past selves have always needed a hero, and it’s become evident that the only person for the job is me. I’m the only one who sent in a full application. I try to vindicate the girl he bullied as much as I can. I try new things, I acknowledge my emotions, and I form the relationships with the type of people I wish I had always been friends with. I do it all for past me. I see her as a deceased infant in a coal black coffin I continually grieve for. Her funeral is a ceaseless out-of-body experience, because that’s still me. I’ve developed my favorite qualities in myself on behalf of the girl he tortured for years. For eight years. I’m a stronger person and I’m a better person for the pained that one bully caused.

 

I want him to know that I conquered. I want him to know that, after overcoming the injustice he pushed onto me, I’m not only surviving, but thriving. I find myself repelling what I’ve realized, just now, in writing this, but I’m grateful for what he did. I’m relieved to feel proud of the woman I see in the mirror. I was unhappy for a lot of years, and this one person wasn’t the cause of all of my negative experiences, but he has come to represent a set of miserable years.

 

This will remain unedited. This is the real-time revelation that I don’t feel compelled to kick my bully in the balls. Though, I won’t thank him either. I did all of the work. He pushed me down the stone staircase that led to me becoming the woman I wanted to be for so long, but in the end I did the work, and I’m still working. What I feel for him now is a beautiful ambivalence. This is the most blissful neutrality I thought I’d never know. When I started this piece, I thought I’d end it by telling my bully off. Things change.

The Secret Life of Boys by Academy Monthly

Eighteen-year-old boys playing squash. Loud, smelly, and sweaty, this group of young men become my teammates from November to February of every year. Though after four years of semi-constant exposure to cursing, belching, and the concept of ‘adjusting’ oneself I have become somewhat immune to teenage boyhood, I still find myself stricken with culture shock every time I realize that I have essentially become ‘one of the boys’. As a teenage girl with limited exposure to what I have deemed ‘the secret life of boys,’ my hour of squash practice each night encompasses a fascinating look into a world where, biologically, I am and will always be an outsider.

A small square room marked deliberately with red tape, the squash courts at Philadelphia Country Club act as my entrance into a parallel universe. Stepping from the carpeted lobby into the wooden-floored squash court, I feel as though I am crossing a threshold of identity. As I change from a shy girl from school into an athletic competitor, my interaction with the opposite sex seems to open up. Like an earthquake to hardened asphalt, my ability to compete with, and even beat, these boys rips apart the predetermined statuses we have all established for each other within the confines of Germantown Academy.

Within this secret world, normal identity and behavior dissolve into nicknames and “smack-talk”. Entering the squash court complex for the first time, the atmospheric shift was almost palpable. No longer simply Amanda, a quiet, awkward girl from school, I become “Izes” when playing squash. An edgy athlete with sleek red safety glasses and midnight-black sneakers, “Izes” fears nothing. Crushing my given name and its worthiness of love into tiny pieces, my squash persona absorbs the ruggedness exuded from all the masculine energy by

which she is surrounded. Among the boys, I am a stronger, less self-concerned version of myself.

Though it seemed quite drastic to me, my acceptance into teenage manhood took place within the first week of practice. A mixture of dating gossip, body odor, and partial nudity, the boys, a group of four made up of The Jock, The Techie, The Slacker, and The Savage, demonstrated to me that, unlike the deliberation that comes with welcoming of a new friend into a clique of girls, being welcomed into a group of guys mainly hinges on their ability to completely ignore that you are in fact a girl. My first experience with this phenomenon occurred on the third day of practice. Deliberately untying and retying my shoes until they reach the perfect tightness, I wait for the rest of the team to arrive. At about 7:35, loud low voices leaping through the hallways indicate the arrival of my male teammates. Travelling as a pack, they have just returned from Wing Night at the restaurant down the street. When they come into view, I notice that, unlike the matching Under Armor outfit I wear, Jock, Techie, Slacker, and Savage are all still garbed in GA gear polos and khaki pants. Naively, I assume that they will all grab their bags and head down to the locker room to change; however, seemingly all at once, they begin to undress in front of me. Slacker casually mentions, “oh hey, I’ll be down here changing on the bleachers,” as I internally freak out. Bizarre to me, these boys do not seem to care about privacy at all. They chat about upcoming dances and parties as I avert my eyes from their spandex and boxers. It’s strange, while each and every member of the team has a completely different body type, no comments about weight, height, or looks come up as they would in a girls’ locker room. In the boys’ world, because privacy is diminished, fear of other men seeing and or judging you or your body also seems to decrease. Although I still would never advocate

for communal showers in the ladies’ locker room, my teammates’ lack of inhibition is refreshing and almost enlightened compared to the secrecy involved in changing in a women’s locker room.

As I learned quickly, in guy-world, there is a very strong correlation between this absence of inhibition and a lack of hygiene. While girls enjoy the smell of vanilla and citrus, it has come to my attention that boys enjoy, and may even take pride in, obtaining some level of body odor. Described as musk by Jock, a healthy amount of body odor, especially to the male athlete, indicates that hard work has been completed. At squash practice, musk is, unfortunately, the prevalent odor on court. A constant reminder of male presence, this bodily stench, at least for teenage boys, honestly appears to be part of the culture of masculinity. A misconception of the science behind pheromones, my teammates, particularly Savage and Jock, believe passionately in their respective musk’s power of attraction. Because a squash court is only 21 feet wide by 32 feet long, the complex tends to trap smell, so I spend much of my time subtly holding my nose or breathing through my mouth. I can confidently relay to any readers, male or female, that ‘the power of the musk’ is highly fictional.

Though my nostrils may never grow accustomed to the sourness of this sweaty smell, as an observer, I find the shift in dynamics caused by musk to be highly revealing about the overall social culture with the boys’ world. Unlike female friend groups in which one friend tends to take on the role of mother, in male-dominant friend groups, no leadership or relational hierarchy ever seems to develop. Consequentially, relatively few pieces of advice or guidance pass from friend to friend. This lack of communication, a stereotypical feature in all male personalities, often has unnecessary detrimental effects on specific members of a friend group. For example, unaware or uncaring of his pungency, Savage, a lanky, blond junior, has grown more and more isolated throughout the season. Warming up alone and talking minimally during our hour of

practice, Savage remains unaware of the olfactory-related reasons behind his ostracism, and the other boys do not care to take on the responsibility of informing him. As I watch this occur, I cannot help but compare it to the stereotypical differences between boys and girls that I have been taught all my life to believe. These ideas reinforced during all my years of learning and attending school, I am programmed to think that because boys tend to be less ‘cliquey’, they are therefore more welcoming than girls. As I watch Savage lose the friends that should have been there to hand him a stick of deodorant when he needed it, it appears that while the dynamics of male friendships make it easier to make friends, they also provide little safety net in keeping them.

In addition, as an avid reality-television watcher, I had become accustomed to the concept that male competition, unlike the passive aggression of females, was expressed quite blatantly through trash-talking and physical rivalries. Anticlimactically for me, the inherent competitiveness I expected from a group of athletic young men was rapidly overwhelmed by their strong reluctance to complete any type of cardio conditioning. Instructed to sprint from one corner of the court to another 20 times in a row, Jock, Techie, Savage, and Slacker jogged slowly around the court with their arms limp at their sides. Montages of muscular men working out with unparalleled intensity ripped from the inner walls of my mind, the boys showed no interest in proving their fitness level superior to those men around them. Eventually, much to my amusement, Jock and Slacker snuck off to another court and created a new game in which the rules no longer ordered that you hold onto the racquet at all times. Instead of running for short balls and turning around for lobs, Slacker and Techie began giving what I can only describe as ‘pep-shouts’ to their racquets as they chucked them through the air towards the ball. Locking our coach out of the court for the last twenty minutes of practice, my teammates successfully

avoided a night of physical exertion. Evolutionarily speaking, it appears that the innate need to improve and flaunt one’s impressive fitness to others only arises in the presence of the opposite sex. Boys do not inherently want to work out or have muscles of steel. Much like girls’ desire for bigger boobs and flatter stomachs to appear more attractive, the extrinsic motivation for a teenage boy to appear stronger and look better comes not from masculine competitiveness, but the motivating presence of young women.

At the end of the final night of practice, I slowly exit the small, white court within which I have come to find solace. Sweaty, the musk I have absorbed over the last hour drips off my body as I climb a small flight of carpeted stairs to the bleachers. Grabbing my bags quickly, I walk with Jock and Slacker for a final time towards the parking lot. Pushing open the large glass doors, I am assaulted by the frigid January air. Gasping in unison, Jock, Slacker and I sprint towards our cars in different areas of the lot. Above the harsh slapping of my shoes against damp pavement I hear Jock shout, “See you later, Amanda!” In the cold darkness of the night, I am reluctantly separated from the male world in which I have grown comfortable. “Izes” still locked within the confines of the small, squash court solace, my time among the boys has ended and I am simply Amanda once again.

As I walk towards the patriot lot the following Monday, I catch a glimpse of Jock, Slacker, Techie, Savage, and a bunch of other guys lifting weights in the field house. Unaware of my passing presence, the boys, clad in sweat-stained cotton t-shirts and bright Nike running shoes, split their focus between lifting dumbbells and not-so-subtly observing the spandex-clad bodies of a visiting volleyball team. Masking their ‘musk’ with Axe body spray and their smack-talk with blasting hip-hop music, the boys I had come to know over the squash season drown in a sea of artificial masculinity. Much like the make-up and push-up bras young girls

wear to attract guys, the behavior that these teenage boys exhibit among girls serves only to manipulate or conceal true nature.

I have been taught all my life to consider boys and girls opposites. However, after completing my immersion within male culture, I have come to reconsider this position. I originally expected that, upon entering the boys’ world I would be struck by a strong wave of foreignness; instead though, I found comfort in my immersion. Though the worlds are dictated by contrasting smells, hierarchies, and support systems, the journeys of teenage boys and girls parallel each other. Guided by insecurity, ambition, and oftentimes blatant sexual motivation, teenagers, both boy and girl, use the solace of a unisex universe to develop their voices and personalities before releasing them into co-ed society.

Fixing by Academy Monthly

A thirty year old, pretty woman named Sydney is standing, arms crossed, and leaning against a wall. The wall is a crisp white with brown molding. A piece of art hangs to her left and a picture of Sydney and her husband hangs to her right. She is wearing Levi jeans and a purposefully faded grey t-shirt and is watching Marty, a fifty-three year old electrician with a mop of brown hair going grey. Marty has on worn jeans, a blue t-shirt with a small hole on the very bottom, and work boots. He is working through a hole in the wall opposite Sydney, and his head is hidden behind the sheet rock. His body moves slightly as he works, fumbling around behind the layer of painted beige sheet rock.
Marty: My God, this is the longest I’ve ever been on a job without being able to figure out what’s wrong with place. 
Sydney: You know, I’ve only had this home for 5 years. And it’s already falling apart. 
Marty: Sometimes new things fall apart. Nothing’s made as well as it used to be.
Sydney: (pause) My husband chose this house. 
Marty: It’s real nice. 
Sydney: No it’s not. It’s falling apart. 
Marty: (pause but still working, head hidden inside the hole in the wall) As long as the people in it aren’t, I guess. 
Sydney: And what if they are?
Marty stops working inside the hole and is still.
Sydney: Is everything alright?
Marty: (begins working again) Yea, I’m fine. (pause) These wires look like they’ve been bitten through. 
Sydney: Yea, it was my pet rat. 
Marty: (stops moving inside the hole) And he’s crawling through these walls?
Sydney: Yea. 
Marty removes his head from the hole quickly and awkwardly and pushes himself up off of the floor. He begins brushing himself off and jumping around, clearly disturbed. 
Marty: Jesus! You couldn’t have told me that? (still brushing off pants and stomping around)
Sydney: You’re an electrician; you’re not supposed to be scared of rats. 
Marty: (astounded) What kind of logic is that?
Sydney: Sound logic. 
Marty stares at Sydney for a while, confused. Then he snaps out of it. He squats down to peer into the hole tentatively.
Marty: Well I think your rat is the problem.
Sydney: (pause) I bought it even though my husband didn’t want me to. He chose the house, so I told him that I was choosing the pet. 
Marty: Some pet you chose. 
Sydney: Well, don’t you want to hear my reasoning? 
Marty: (still looking into the hole in the wall) Uh, not really. I’m trying to figure out how I can work with the threat of a rat in the wall. 
Sydney: Well, you have to figure that out for yourself. But my reason for buying the rat- that I can explain to you. And I know you’re curious. 
Marty: (turns to face Sydney and stands up) Fine. Shoot. 
Sydney: (sincere) I’m happy. I didn’t choose a dog because they’re like children, and I just don’t want that. I didn’t choose a cat because their purring just sets me off. I didn’t really want a goldfish because they have no personality. So I went up to the counter at the pet shop and bought myself a rat.  
Marty: So you bought it because you didn’t want the other things. Not because you wanted a rat. 
Sydney: (pause) I have a tendency to do that
Marty: Oh (shifts his feet) That’s a habit that you want to break. 
Sydney: Easier said than done. 
Marty nods. Then he gets back on the ground and lays on his back, face up, preparing himself for his entrance into the hole, now aware of the rat’s presence. He begins fiddling around again, like before, and Sydney shifts so that she’s standing closer to Marty, right next to his feet. She looks down towards him. 
Sydney: I think you’ll figure out how to fix it. 
Marty: (from inside the hole) Yea, after two hours you’d hope so. 
Sydney: It’s no problem, really. 
Marty: I might be here all night at this point. 
Sydney: You can stay as long as you like. 
Marty: (barely audibly mumbling) The problem is I can’t be here all night.
Sydney: What’s that?
Marty: Nothing. I just have somewhere to be soon. Sorry.
Sydney: That’s no problem. Come back whenever you like. You’re welcome here. 
Marty stops working inside the wall but doesn’t emerge. 
Marty: Do you want to know something?
Sydney: I’d love to know something. 
Marty: (pause and then begins working again) Never mind.
Sydney: (calmly) I said I’d love to know something. 
Marty: I forget what I was going to say.
Sydney: No you don’t.
Marty: I forget why I was going to say it. 
Sydney: I didn’t ask you for a reason. 
Marty stops working again and then emerges from the hole in the wall slowly. He props himself up on his elbows and then stands up all the way, rolling open from his knees upwards. 
Marty: (hesitating) I don’t even know why I’m saying this.
Sydney: You’ll figure it out once you say it. 
Marty: No, never mind. So…tell me about your husband.
Sydney: You don’t have to be ashamed.
Marty: I’m not ashamed, I was just curious about your husband. 
Sydney: He goes to a lot of meetings. Like you.
Marty: What? I’m an electrician. Electricians don’t go to meetings. 
Sydney: All kinds of people go to AA meetings. 
Marty: (surprised and a bit taken aback) What? That’s not what- I wasn’t- I don’t-
Sydney: I saw the sobriety coin in your back pocket.
Marty is speechless. He reaches to his back pocket to feel the coin and pats his butt, still staring at Sydney. He doesn’t pull out the coin. Sydney doesn’t say anything. Instead, she waits for Marty to begin talking. He realizes this and tries to think of something to say.
Marty: Well, um, yea. I’ve got a coin with me. 
Sydney: What is it for? 
Marty: (long and thoughtful silence, still slightly stunned) I used to be addicted to prescription pills.
Sydney: I’m glad that I know something about you. 
Marty: Um, yea. (Unsure of what to say) Thank you. 
Sydney: You’re welcome. 
Marty: (awkwardly) Well. I’m sure you’re ready to throw me out. 
Marty begins to sit down again.
Sydney: Don’t hide in the walls. 
Marty: (stands back up) I-sorry. 
Sydney: I think I know why you did it. 
Marty: (interested and concerned) Yea?
Sydney: For the same reason I bought a rat. You didn’t want the other thing. 
Marty: What other thing?
Sydney: Reality. 
Marty: (angry) Stop trying to tell me what you think I feel.
Sydney: It’s true though. 
Marty stares at Sydney in silence and his anger slowly fades. 
Sydney: Did your dad beat you?
Marty: (startled) What? No. He was a good man, Jesus.
Sydney: See, I’m not always right. I’m an ordinary person. 
Marty: (annoyed) I mean, no matter how ordinary you are, you can’t make accusations like that. 
Sydney: I didn’t make an accusation, I made a statement. I was trying to figure something out. I like knowing things about you. 
Marty: (trying to be angry but not able to be) I don’t know what to say to you. 
Sydney: Tell me what made you do drugs. 
Marty sits down on the floor and leans against the wall where the hole is not. Sydney joins him. 
Marty: (deep breathe in and out) My brother…(looks at Sydney suddenly annoyed) no, I don’t have to tell you this. 
Sydney: (Looks back at Marty) You’re right, you don’t. 
Marty: (pause) My brother…my brother died. 
Sydney: What color hair did he have?
Marty: What?! I don’t understand your question. 
Sydney: I just want to know what color hair he had. 
Marty: (pause) Blackish-brown. It never got grey like mine. (staring at wall opposite him) And...he loved building things. He was going to be an architect. 
Sydney: I would’ve had him build my house. 
Marty: Yea, he would’ve done a much better job. 
Sydney: (pause) How did he die?
Marty: (deep breath in and out) He got hit by a Trolley.
Sydney: Where?
Marty: (still staring at wall opposite him) Just in the middle of the street. 
Sydney: I never saw it on the news. 
Marty: (still staring at wall opposite him) I didn’t let them put it in the news. 
Sydney: I’m glad you didn’t.
Marty: (still staring at wall opposite him) Me too. 
Sydney: I don’t watch the news. 
Marty: (still staring at wall opposite him) Me neither. 
Sydney: I don’t have a rat. 
Marty: (looking at Sydney now) I’m sober now. 
Sydney: (looking at Marty) There’s nothing here for you to fix. 
Marty: (still looking at Sydney) There’s nothing here I need to fix.

The Truth about Sophie by Academy Monthly

It was a stone cold afternoon, evening light shone through the big windows of our school. The pretty sunset was gone, leaving behind a cold dimness. It was at this time of day, that everything looked about the same color. We hung around lab tables, as twilight descended upon us. We weren’t the quietest bunch, but now when we talked it sounded like silence. Sophie sat next to me flipping around Pandora channels on her computer, crinkly hair swept over her face, covering half of her near perfect features.  She was tall, pretty, she had crazy eyes alien eyes. When she looked at you it was a mix between a Labrador retriever, and the endless mystery of something otherworldly. The glow from her laptop illuminated her face and the space around her seemed to be the brightest thing in the room. She was always the center of attention, or it felt like that anyway. I secretly envied her; she was everything that I was not. The other three were throwing a toilet plunger at a wall trying to make it stick, and laughing hysterically about it. Those things sound stupid to me now, but I used to love stupidity.  I wanted to join them, but Sophie had always fascinated me more than anything. She fascinated us all.  

She was the closest thing to popular that anyone could be at our tiny school. She had everything (friends, boyfriends, the endless adoration of her family etc.), but maybe it was because she scared us, that we were so enamored with her. She had sides, she was complex, she was our puzzle, and our friend. She was like a breath of fresh air to us, she didn’t think like us. She was a revolutionary against the system, and we were her party. Yet because of these things we were terrified of her. Like a time bomb, she was prone to agitation, and prone to god knows what else. Thinking of this I took a nervous glance toward her arms, they looked like fissures, trying to knit themselves back together, and never fully succeeding. I nervously clawed at my own arms, just to feel their familiar smoothness. 

Tossing away the toilet plunger Dan bounced over grabbing Sophie by the shoulders “just pick one already, we want music!” he discreetly nuzzled her while looking at the screen. She shoved him off playfully.  Jealousy shot through me like an arrow. I stifled the pain in my chest, pretending to unsee reality. I pleaded with reality. 

Hopping onto one of the lab tables, and looking at Sophie, I said: “Play it Girl! Let’s Dance” I motioned to Sarah and Melissa, the other two in the room, who quickly followed. “C’mon we’ll all be gone in a month!” 

We could all dance well, really well. And I thought back to fifth grade art class. A few classes our teacher never showed up. So we threw a party, tossed our projects aside and danced in the sunlit art room. Blasting music and inadvertently drawing the attention of everybody in the library, as we bernied, and john walled, and crumped it out. We were wild, uncontained unabridged. Fifth grade went on forever, we were eternal, and eternity with friends, is something I could live with. With sixth grade came Sophie, and she shook the bonds that held us all together. Scars appeared on arms, she showed us that life was a dark place. And we all reluctantly accepted it.

“No” she said looking jaded. “I’ll pass” the room felt even colder.  Melissa and Sarah paused; we all remembered that Sophie didn’t dance, ever. I felt crushed, but grinned and sat down on the cold lab table. We continued to chat, and the room grew dark. Sarah and Melissa eventually left. I felt isolated now, stuck between Sophie and myself, and Dan. I didn’t want to force it on her, but I hated how happy she seemed, especially after what had happened. 

“Sophie,” I inquired “how is Jake?”  The air immediately grew thick; I had hit the nail on the head without even meaning to. “We broke up before the service trip.” Sophie said pretending to be oblivious to my question. I wanted to slap her, and tell her how ignorant she was being. Dan grew tense, the mood in the room hardened.  

“I heard a lot about that trip” I said, I hoped that I sounded serious. I felt serious and cold, and slightly distressed over Dan. The way he was acting, I wanted to hit him too.  

“So did I” Dan finally started in, staring directly at me now, trying to shake the discomfort in the room, “mostly rumors, I don’t think any of it was actually true” He was a liar. An awful liar. 

I cut him off “Is Jake… okay?” I said firmly, I had gone too far, I could tell by their faces, and for some reason I didn’t find it wrong. The fact of it scared me.  I had lit the fuse.

“Just stop!” he was angry now, he had no reason to be. “We all know what happened he’ll be back in school soon... Just leave it alone!” he said shielding her with his arm. “ you’re making her sad” Tears sprang to Sophie’s eyes I wanted to tell him what a fake he was, that he and Jake were barely friends, that he never gave a damn about Jake, that, if Sophie weren’t here he probably would never care, he didn’t care! My blood boiled, I just wanted him to leave, leave this school, and leave some of my heart in-tact.

“You weren’t there…” she said it softly at first, her face wet with tears. She shoved him away. “I said YOU WEREN’T THERE!” this time it wasn’t at me.  Dan was petrified, I stood there in silence.

“Sophie…calm down” he tried, nervously glancing around. “Look it’s alright... I… I’m sorry…I didn’t mean…” He pleaded.

There was ice on the windows now, but she was a volcano. She was glowing; her blood was boiling lava seeping through the cracks in her skin; Cracks that she had placed.

 “Leave!” she fumed. The smoke was choking us both, we couldn’t breathe. He did. Wordlessly.

She sat back down, I became invisible to her. She took out her notebook and wrote, page after page, after page. 

Finally, after an eternity, she looked up from her scribbling. I stared back sympathetic and solemn. She closed the book and looked at me pensively. 

“You know we could all be gone tomorrow,” she paused, contemplating; I got the feeling she wasn’t ready to tell me everything that was on her mind.  “I mean we all have life but I don’t know if any of us even… deserve it.”

“I doesn’t matter if you deserve it or not, you’re alive” Now I paused “Isn’t that enough?” She did this often, asked really deep questions, and then just left you to hang on them and reconsider the value of your life. It really bothered me. I hated feeling like I had to explain my reasoning for existing, it was mentally exhausting. And I really hate to admit it but she had a point, unreasonable as it was, what if life really doesn’t matter. Is there grandeur beyond us, beyond humanity?  And death is just the stepping stone?

Jake returned weeks later. He was never the same. The world had finally hardened his jovial spirit. Whispers haunted him like ghosts, and our classroom, a graveyard. Rumors of hospitals, scary things, No one ever seeks the truth at these times, rumors will suffice. His parents came to school often. He never came back to Latin class, instead taking up a spot taking with someone else. 

    The teachers faked oblivion, and kept up, as though he were a divot in the path of learning.  They all knew, but made no acknowledgement of it. No one asked, and no one told. And we all pretended to ignore the two jagged pink lines that coursed across his wrists, hidden behind sleeves and jackets and mittens. Always feared and never forgotten. The world had finally broken him, broken all of us, as we listlessly drifted around the halls for the last month of school. We were always a tight knit class, but only wounds can be knit back together, scars will stay with you forever.     

He is She: Fragments by Academy Monthly

The lights flickered outside of my cell, but I didn’t mind. I wasn’t keen on seeing the grimy floor that I had laid down on in a moment of drama. It smelled of aged piss and regret. I dabbed one drop of Bourjois Evening in Paris on my left wrist and inhaled the scent deeply, preferring the crisp, fruity smell to urine. It was the only thing that I had smuggled from my life in Brooklyn into the Queensboro Correctional Facility. Evelyn would appreciate that.
The low ceilings didn’t smother me anymore. In the dark, the tiles seemed to melt away into a midnight sky, without spots of stars. I had grown used to the feeling of being surrounded by rectangles of cement on all sides. When the lights were working, they would cast shadows that stared at me, observe me in my cell, and then mock me when they escaped, gently sliding between the rusting bars. Even the shadows had become easier to ignore. I had wronged; I belonged here. I had learned to cope.
But tonight was not one of the nights I accepted my fate and slid beneath the sparse covers of my bed, allowing the stale odor to envelop me. I stood up and walked to the bars, padding gently on my bare feet. The corridor was empty and breezeless. No windows were open. Nothing was open, and her whispers had begun.

******
Giovanni was a man, through to his bones. His Italian heritage was clear in his olive skin, but that was the only sensual quality about him. He had many friends like himself, whose muscles were obvious but not overwhelming, and whose coarse dark hair did not shadow their eyes. He thrived amongst the Italians of Brooklyn. Giovanni’s wife, Keva, had emigrated from Ireland and found him in New York. She was beautiful, with a spray of freckles on her face and thick brown hair that ran down to the bow of her apron. Giovanni married her in 1928.
I came after Evelyn. She was born the year our parents were married, a child of the wild passion they shared. I thank God for her. I was born two years later. Ronnie Carbone.
Giovanni was a man of few words who appreciated the finer things, like the thick cigars he would smoke with his friends when they met at the café down the street from his flat. But with those few words he was able to express a host of emotions.
There was one time, it was the fall of 1937, and I had been searching for my pocket of coins under the furniture, sure that Eveyn had borrowed and misplaced it. While I was exploring every inch of the house, I found a tube of Keva’s lipstick under the couch. During the war, lipstick was not widely sold, so I couldn’t purchase my own. I took it to my room and uncapped it, twirling it in and out of the tube. I brought it to my face, holding it above my lips. My breath left moisture on my fingers, as they danced around a decision. I capped the lipstick. Keva must have forgotten about it entirely; it was safe to keep the thing.
Two days later, I sat on my small, worn bed with the window open, a warm wind surging through my room and rolling over me. I had uncapped the lipstick and, holding it, twirled it in and out of the tube. I brought it to my face again and without hesitating, hurriedly rubbed the color onto my thin lips. It felt like they had suddenly become wings and fluttered off my face. It felt dramatic and sweet, and a little bit sexy. I rubbed my lips together like I had seen Keva do. I never understood what attracted women to the idea of coating their lips in colored wax, but it suddenly made sense to me. Women did it because it felt right.
“How nice it must feel to be a woman.”
I never meant to say it out loud. Giovanni cracked open the door, and seeing me, pushed it open to reveal his full stature. I capped the lipstick and threw it in the crack between the yellowing wall and my bed. But in my haste to get rid of the evidence, I forgot about the coat of lipstick on my lips. Giovanni walked over to the bed. He looked into my face, really regarded me. His eyes always betrayed him, and I could see that they were tinged with anger, but held mostly disappointment. Taking the sleeve of his grey shirt, he wiped the lipstick from my mouth.
“Men do not wear lipstick.” He held my eyes, trying to force the idea into my head. And then he turned and walked out of my room, closing the door behind him.

****
Giovanni was a wise man. I should have listened. Perhaps that would have saved me from my fate. But I had not, and I had been tossed into a house of criminals. The lights continued to flicker in front of me as my knuckles went white against the bars. I began humming to overwhelm her voice. But her lipstick covered mouth was sewn into my brain.
She wanted me to escape. She didn’t use to visit me as frequently, but her voice rose into my ears almost nightly now. She wanted me to escape, and every time she spoke she had a new idea. Don’t eat for a week and then force yourself between the bars. Use your bedpost to carve a hole in the cement walls. The plans never involved aggression. They were almost sensual in their cunning, and were all feasible options. They would require intricate planning and incredible willpower, but they were possible.
I had considered many of her ideas, but I could not bring myself to act. I was frightened. Frightened of really escaping. But her whispers were in my ears tonight, louder than before.
“Ronnie, you do not deserve to be here,” she murmured.
I stared into the corridor. The dim lights flickered on and off, illuminating the sleeping bodies in the cells opposite mine. “Yes, yes I do. I deserve this fate. I have wronged.” The musty air accepted my confession.
“No, you are innocent. Why will you not accept this?”
I covered my ears with my hands, and padded to my bed. I hoped that sleep would find me soon.
“Ronnie. You have not wronged. Don’t you see?” She never fully understood the weight of my actions. She was simply along for the ride. Some ride she chose.
I took the corner of my covers and pressed it between my fingers. It was coarse. I grabbed more of the fabric and folded it into a ball, stuffing it into my right ear. My left ear pressed deep into the bed.
She was relentless, “You do not belong here.” I sat up beneath the low ceiling of my cell.
I did not agree. Homosexuality was a crime.

****

The last night that I lived under the roof of my parents’ house was not special, or particularly exciting. I simply decided to leave.
Giovanni and Keva were both devout Catholics who respected the Scripture. They slept with Bibles in the drawers of their night tables. I tried to respect their discipline and devotion to a God that did not accept me. Giovanni approached me about the lipstick incident, and many other incidents that transpired after. He did not know that the events happened because of her whispers. Neither Giovanni nor Keva were keen on my appreciation for needlepoint. I loved pricking the canvas with one of Keva’s old needles and then lacing it with thread. It gave me a sense of satisfaction that Giovanni never approved of. They did not like it when I told my friends at the field that I would no longer be joining them to play baseball. Instead, they pressed me out the door and told me that if I did not go to the field, there would be consequences. On baseball days I walked to the corner store and talked to the woman at the counter, interrogating her about her makeup application techniques. On a Tuesday in 1942, she told me that she could no longer answer my questions, and that if I wanted to come into the store, I would have to purchase something. I jammed a tube of lipstick into my pocket as I walked out the door, the bell signaling the end of our relationship.
Shame sometimes crept through the battered wooden door to my bedroom. In summer, it would curl through my windows, dense and rotten. My walls would moan and sink closer to my body. Keva and Giovanni often spoke in hushed tones about the incidents, and sometimes I would hear a gentle sob. On nights like that I would go to my window, raise the rusting latch, and push my face into the darkness. It accepted my silent screams as I cursed her whispers in my ears.
Then came the year 1945. Puberty was raking through my body and I was growing the signs of manhood. She whispered more often. Giovanni began shaking hands with me and stepped away when I offered an embrace. He was frustrated by my inability to express myself correctly. To him, correct expression was a quick smile and a few words. To me, correct expression followed openness.
One night, he returned home from one of the frequent rendezvous that he had with friends at the café. The door swung open and a man with slumped shoulders in clothes that seemed to swallow his body stepped in. He closed the door carefully, assuming incorrectly that his children had already gone up to bed. I came out from the kitchen. His eyes were glossy and bloodshot, and he looked worn-down, though not worn-out. Giovanni was a man. But he looked at me with his eyebrows knit together, and I could not stop myself from embracing him.
“Tell me what’s wrong.”
Giovanni pushed against my shoulders, “Ronald. You do not ask me what’s wrong, and I do not ask you what’s wrong. We acknowledge each other, and that is all.”
As I stepped away, I saw the earnestness, the solemnness in his eyes. I bent my head down to study the fraying edges of the dirty carpet.
“Of course.”
I walked upstairs to my bedroom, gripping the thin, wooden railing as I climbed the narrow steps. The light on the ceiling flickered; it still had not been repaired after so many years. Evelyn’s face peered from around the door to her bedroom, which was equally as ancient as my own. She beckoned me towards her, and when I reached her door, she placed a small bottle of perfume in my hand. For a moment, I allowed her to regard me, and she allowed me to regard the sorrow in her eyes. I will always remember that it was not only sorrow there. I’ve convinced myself that there was also comprehension. She knew.
That night, I took the old red duffel bag down from the top of my closet and piled some of the few clothes that I owned in it, wedging my coin purse and the tube of lipstick in the side. My departure was not dramatic. I did not look around my room to absorb its features one final time. I did not kiss Evelyn on the cheek or leave a powerful note behind. I simply dropped the perfume bottle in my pocket, opened the front door, and stepped into the darkness.

****

She had come up with a new plan. It was the simplest one she had suggested so far, in a thrilled whisper. She seemed so sure of herself.
I stood up and let the covers roll off of me. She had no right to advise me. It was her whispers that had encouraged me to act as I did, and sealed my fate. And yet, she had not abandoned me. I moved to the bars at the front of my cell, inhaling their metallic flavor. She would not abandon me. A memory grabbed my stomach and forced me onto the cold floor. I hugged my legs to myself and tucked my chin in between my knees.

****

“I will not abandon you,” I said to him, while we sat beneath the overpass, wedged into a space that hid us from passerby. He stopped tracing the graffiti with his fingers, just above a crack in the cement through which vines had forced themselves, and turned to meet my eyes. They were like Giovanni’s, giving his feelings away entirely. I had abandoned a family in search of my masculinity, and I would not abandon anyone else for something that I would never find.
Roger stopped tracing the graffiti and dropped his fingers onto my knee. His hair stood up in brown spikes tinged with spots of gold. In a moment of drama, I had told him that his hair reminded me of the stars.
“I wasn’t worried about that.” He took his arm off my knee and stretched it across my shoulders, tilting his head into the crook of my collarbone. I took the side of his head in my hand and pressed it deeper into my skin, trying to make an imprint of his features through my ragged t-shirt.
Footsteps echoed over the car motors, and Roger lifted his head off of my body, blinking more than necessary and then standing up to meet the other two. Sammy and Mark greeted him. I made myself visible from behind the wall that had sheltered Roger and me; the wall that I was sick of hiding behind. But I would only do what Roger felt comfortable with. It was not my place to insist he change.
“Ay, there’s the other one,” Sammy grabbed my shoulder and playfully shook me. I had to readjust the gun tucked in the back of my pants. Mark smiled, but his face showed signs of distress. He took Sammy’s arm and pulled him back. Sammy noticed his glare and lost his usual playfulness.
Mark began, “Listen. While we were walking, we heard some things. I think that we need to keep moving.” Sammy nodded in assent. Roger placed his hand on my shoulder like Sammy had before. His fingers were warm.
“Then what are we waiting for? I’m not keen on living the rest of my life in a penitentiary,” I said. But really, I was tired of constantly moving, trying to outrun the police. I had just grown used to the crack in the cement where the vines were growing. And now we were moving again because they had somehow found out where we were staying. The police enjoyed persecuting innocent men. Sure, we were a gang that had stolen a couple of dollars here or there, but we had never shot anyone. The justification for the chase lay in some deeply engrained fear of theirs, a fear that they shared with Giovanni.
By then, I was tired of hiding my feelings, running from overpass to alley. When I listened to her whispers, I felt infinitely better, more comfortable even. So I allowed them to control me. And they led me to Roger. To a feeling of easiness that I had never encountered before, and that I would most likely never encounter again.
We walked out into the dim light of the quickly descending sun. There were very few trees for cover, so we stayed on the sidewalk, mimicking composure. Dusk was slowly fading to darkness and the streetlamps did little to illuminate the path, spread out as they were. Mark was leading, and he kept us moving at a steady pace towards a cluster of buildings. Roger and I were in the back. He took my hand. It was colder than I remembered.
I brought it towards my face, ready to warm it with my lips. But the hand was not the one that I had studied, trying to remember every line and every wrinkle; it was not Roger’s. I spun around in the now settled darkness to a face that was also not Roger’s. The face belonged to a cop, a sneering smile stretched across his face, mocking me. Two others stood behind him. Our eyes met, and in them I recognized a burning hatred, tinged with fear. Then Roger’s fist met the cop’s face.
Roger gripped my hand and pulled me forwards; Mark and Sammy were already sprinting ahead. I felt his pulse ricocheting between my fingers, merging with mine as our worn shorts billowed out behind us. Our legs pressed into the cement with every exhale, passing in and out of the streetlamp light.
Something hard hit me from behind, a shoulder or a leg, and I kissed the sidewalk as my legs swung out from beneath me. Roger hit the ground next to me. I felt a hand on my back, pinning me down, and I heard Roger cursing the motherfuckers who were now on top of us, triumphant. I heard the sound of one of them laughing, and then the thud of fist on bone. Roger began screaming. I struggled to get up, thrashing and kicking, but the weight on my back was steadfast. The coarse cement scratched my cheeks, and I felt the sharpness of desperation. Thuds and screams rang in my ears, louder than her whispers ever would. And then they stopped.
I pushed up with all of my body, propelled by some sort of insanity that had washed away the limits of human capability. The weight fell to the ground. Roger was lying on the cold cement, the cop standing over him with a despicable smirk. I crawled to his side, pressing my face to his, waiting to hear something. The cop clutched my arm with his greasy fingers. I tore away and swung my fist into his face. He dropped to the ground as I reached for the back of my pants. Two gunshots sang through the thick darkness, accompanied by the screams of two cops. Men.

****

Her whispers were right. The bars to the cell opened with the clink of metal on metal. Men in jumpsuits filed into the corridor, creating a sea of orange. I joined them as they headed to the mess hall, eager for a meal.
One of the doors on the left side was open; the guards too busy walking through the crowds and taunting the men to close it. I made my way across and down the corridor to the door, gently sliding outside into the brightness of daylight. The barbed wire fence stretched out across the dusty fields. I walked towards them. No one seemed to notice.
“I have not wronged,” she whispered.
“I have not wronged,” I roared.

The Waffles by Academy Monthly

I have an unhealthy addiction to beautiful photographs of beautiful people. I check Instagram every thirty minutes and log onto Tumblr for hours at a time. I go on Facebook to stalk the people with glittering lives and find them through what I can only imagine to be sheer desperation. The glitziest crowd is the Manhattanites. I once met a Persian girl over the summer who lives in an apartment on the Upper East Side, a true-life Gossip Girl in the flesh, exported from the Middle East, with a backstory worthy of a Pulitzer Prize winning novel. She vacations in Paris with her closest girlfriends, and they parade around the hotel room with thin flutes of champagne, dressed in nothing but white bathrobes (probably scented with roses). I know this because there are pictures of it all over Facebook. It’s an absurd life, but it looks amazing on camera, frozen in place and glossed over with a vintage filter. Nothing looks quite right these days without a filter over it. In fact, it would be a real discomfort, an act of defiance, to see a photo Instagrammed in unvarnished color, with no sepia or burnt-orange tinges and only the truth, black and white as ever.

But these days, black and white is out of date. I only see rosy-hued visions of my friends and peers. They greet me every morning at breakfast. Earlier today, as I ate my bowl of cereal, munching and crunching down whole grain oats, I scrolled through my newsfeed and watched them all slide by. Mediterranean cruises, Paris by night, an artful arrangement of chocolate mousse, perfectly bronzed and endless legs. My cheerios were soggy and bland in comparison. As I reached for the milk carton, the newsfeed crawled to a stop halfway through a photo of Elise Burkeham. If Kate Moss had told anyone her secrets to life, it would’ve been to Elise. She lives her life as if it’s a montage of impeccable cinematic compositions, all pinned onto the mosaic of her Instagram profile. It’s detestable and irresistible.

I looked down at Elise’s photo now-showing on the silver screen of my phone. Her face was a smudge of pale amber, her hair the final stroke of a brush running low on dark paint. In every picture Elise uploaded, she became a study in perfect contrasts, the lights and darks blending and blurring at the edges. It was nighttime in the picture, a balmy, glittering night. Quaint blocks of buildings huddled over the narrow street in the background. Up above, a scribble of lights zigzagged between the walls. Elise was in the foreground, artfully framed in the lower-left corner. She was looking at her friend, her arm draped casually over her shoulder, a nonchalant smile glittering in her eyes. Her friend faced the camera with a deadpan look of mischief, her red-stained lips in a sullen pout. A sparkling martini glass dangled between her fingers, held up and away from her with an arm bent just so at the elbow and wrist. The caption read, “buenos nochess old san juan.”

Funny story. I was the one who took that picture three months ago. I ran into the two of them strolling down Cambiando Avenue as I sulked behind my two parents and younger brother. We were there on a five-day family vacation packed with guided tours and cheap hotel soap. They were there on a long weekend getaway overflowing with tanning oil and coconut juice, or so I imagined. So yes, I was there with them that night. And I could tell you about how that balmy evening wasn’t quite as balmy as it seemed on camera. And the soft, glowing lights overhead was really these flickering, naked bulbs of harsh white. And I remember the sweat sliding down Elise’s skin, greasing her face and making her hair flat at the top. Her friend Jo had that signature slump that looked perfectly slouchy on camera, but it seemed hunchback-like in person. When they posed for the shot, my family was watching, waiting for me off to the side. It took a few tries for Jo to figure out her pout and for Elise to decide if she would look straight on or away. When I finally snapped the picture, the automatic flash went off and it made their cheeks shine like metal and tinged their squinted eyes red. I’d shown it to Elise in dismay, saying something like, “Ah sorry, the lighting’s probably bad here.”

But she shrugged and said, “No, I’ll just add a filter. Thanks so much Emma! It’s so funny we ran into each other!”

“Yeah, and of all places!”

“Really though. I never see you in school these days.”

Right here there was silence as Elise flicked through color edits and I tucked my hands into my pockets. Finally, she looked up, saw me standing there, and smiled again.

“Hey, you should come with me and Jo tomorrow morning to the beach. We’ve got a cabana right on the sand.”

I nodded, in a calculated, casual manner. “Oh wow, sure! That sounds really great.”

“Okay cool! I’d get your number but I don’t want to get out of this app. I can just message you on Facebook and we’ll meet up.”

“Yeah that works!”

When I looked down at her phone, the picture I’d taken was transformed. My dismal shot that was directly centered on two sweating girls with pallid skin had been cropped at the corner and glazed over with a haze of sepia. The exposure was dimmed way low, the shadows turned up high, the glaring clarity fuzzed out. Jo’s mouth, a limp, sad red in person, became the pouting, noir-rouge smear you see now. Elise’s eyes, beady and sagging in the flesh, picked up a pixelated sparkle.

“Wow that really looks great!” I told her.

“Yeah, well, I’m not about to put up a subpar pic of me with greasy hair and gross skin. Gotta do what you gotta do. And I look like a sad mess in the original pic,” she said smiling and shaking her head, “but no one’ll see it anyway and that’s all that matters, eh?”

I shrugged, nodding slowly. It’s uncanny to see an actress out of character, namely the character you imagine she must be.

Elise never messaged me that night. I never got to experience an enviable day in their luxury cabana. Nevertheless, from that moment on, my life as others knew it would change forever. Elise had taught me a nifty lesson about the art of make-believe. Feeling inspired, I Instagrammed my first composition the next morning, Un Plaque de Gaufres, with the intended vision of two golden, buttermilk halos bright with light. The real waffles were whole-wheat-brown and quite dull in person, but I sat down with them on my hotel bed and got to work. I arranged them just so in the center. I dusted confectioner’s sugar over them. I added two heart-shaped strawberries on top as a complementary accent color. Then I stood on my toes and loomed over the whole arrangement with phone in hand. In a few minutes, I adjusted the colors, brightened the shadows, and cropped it into the shape of a circle. And then voila! I had a food porn masterpiece with the caption, “waffles in bed :) #oldsj”. Then I carried them to the kitchenette and ate them at the counter with my Dad. By the end of the day, my waffles had 87 likes.

 

Les Gaufres were just the beginning. Now, I turn ordinary nights grungy with a filter effect of digitized smokiness. I trade in smiles for artful smirks. I do landscapes as stretched out panoramas, narrow strips showcased on a slab of minimalist white. I capture memories that never existed. Off-camera, life goes on per usual. My family plays board games on Thursday nights. I like eating cereal by myself at the kitchen counter. I live in a cookie cutter house with stain-resistant carpeting. But that’s all backstage footage. If you really want to get to know me, look at my Instagram.

irish pub-- a play by Academy Monthly

This play is set in the kitchen of an Irish pub called Hospitable Heritage around 8:00 p.m., with a dinner party in the background behind closed kitchen doors. The dinner party is for a family reunion of the Cooney family. The host of this party, BRIAN COONEY, is also the chef and co-owner of the pub. Brian is in the kitchen for the entire play, cooking. Brian’s wife, CARROLL COONEY, is the other co-owner of the pub and is the only waitress for this family reunion. Brian and Carroll’s son, BRADEN, is 23 years old and has been a part of his father’s family business for most of his life. Carroll comes into the kitchen periodically to check on Brian’s cooking.)

CARROLL (enters kitchen): That appetizer almost ready, sweetie?

BRIAN (slightly frustrated): I’m working on it.

CARROLL (with a smile): Alright, stomachs are growlin’ though.

BRIAN (more frustrated): I said it’s coming.

CARROLL (concerned): You okay, hon?

BRIAN: what do you think?

CARROLL (places her hand onto brian’s shoulder): Look, babe, I know things are tense right now between you and our little Braden, but—

BRIAN: --Well he’s not actin’ so little right now. He’s got some nerve to just walk out like that.

CARROLL (sighs): I know, Bry, I know…

BRIAN: The food’ll be out in a minute.

CARROLL (calmly): Gotcha, no rush though… (carroll exits kitchen to speak with her other family members about more pleasant subjects)

(Carroll’s brother, FINN SULLIVAN, enters the kitchen just as Carroll passes through the same doorway. Brian refuses to make eye contact with Finn, but Finn is not afraid to look Brian straight in the eye.)

FINN: How’s my brother-in-law doing? Not too shabby?

BRIAN: I’m fine.

FINN: Not going to ask how I am? Where’s the affection in that?

BRIAN: How are you?

FINN: Eh, I’ve been better… Your son says he staying at my place, by the way, just till your little “issue” gets fixed.

BRIAN: Yeah, I know. (yells to carroll beyond closed doors) APPETIZER’S READY!

(Carroll enters kitchen and hastily collects all three of the trays with food and exits kitchen doors. After she hands the food over to her guests offstage, Carroll comes back to kitchen door without entering, and she eavesdrops on Brian and Finn’s conversation. Every time Carroll exits the kitchen and eavesdrops by the door, a small light is shown on her.)

FINN (checks to make sure carroll has left kitchen): Your boy Braden also told me ‘bout you and that woman.

BRIAN (frustrated, but nervous): Of course he did.

FINN: You want my advice?

BRIAN: No.

FINN: You sure? (confident) I’ve been told I’m an excellent advice-giver, by your son, that is!

BRIAN (quietly, with sternness): Get-out-of-my-life!

CARROLL (walks into the kitchen immediately after Brian yells at Finn, calling to her husband as if she has no idea what they were talking about, though she really does): Entrée cookin’, dear?

(Finn acts completely natural, as if he was just having a friendly chat with Brian, while Brian appears paler than usual, nervous that Carroll might get suspicious.)

BRIAN (trying to look normal): Yep, how was that appetizer?

CARROLL (pretend-smiling): Pret-ty tas-tey, but I have a feeling that this’ll be one hell of a main course! (looks at her husband, then her brother, then back at her husband) Alrighty, catch up with ya later! (exits kitchen, but remains listening to conversation behind kitchen doors)

BRIAN: Look, I know I screwed up with my wife and all, but that’s no reason for my own son to walk out on us and go live with his uncle.

FINN (chuckling): Well it’s not just about you tiny “fling.”

BRIAN (serious): Then what?

FINN: Oh please, you know he wants to own this pub once you’re done with it.

BRIAN (quietly): Not happening.

FINN: Oh, come on, man, so what if he drinks occasionally? He’s still the most responsible kid I know.

BRIAN (irritated): You’re not the boy’s father.

FINN: Braden just needs some security in his life, that’s all. He can prove it to ya if you just give him a chance!

BRIAN (more irritated): The last time I “gave him a chance,” things did not work out!

FINN (disappointed): I hate to have to do this, but if you don’t give Braden a second go, then I’m gonna have to tell Carroll—

BRIAN (almost pleading): --No! Back off! She-can’t-know!

(Carroll hurryingly skips into the kitchen, still acting oblivious to Brian and Finn’s chat. Brian and Finn both make attempts to look normal and friendly once again.)

CARROLL (with a fake smile): That entrée set for take-off?

BRIAN (nervous, pulls out a tray of food from the oven and places the food onto three cooler trays): Just came out, honey! (hands the cooler trays to his wife, hastily)

CARROLL: Thank ya! (calmer) Try not to get too worked up over all this cooking, alright?

BRIAN (looks over to Finn): Alright, I’ll try.

(Carroll exits the kitchen doors with the trays in her hands, set the trays on the offstage dinner party’s table, then returns to listening in on Brian and Finn, with more worry than before.)

FINN: I’m serious, I’m not afraid to tell her.

BRIAN (annoyed): I just can’t trust that kid anymore.

FINN (pleading): But you’ve gotta!

BRIAN (louder): NO! BACK-OFF! (grasps his cutting knife very tightly)

FINN (notices Brian’s tense grip on his knife): Okay, man, relax. (very nervous) Just ease your grip there!
Carroll rushes into the room right after she thinks a fight is about to break out between Brian and Finn. As soon as she enters through the kitchen doors, Brian sets the knife back down on the kitchen table as if nothing bad happened (or was ever going to happen). It is time for the dessert.

CARROLL (shouts): Enough already!

BRIAN and FINN (acting confused): What?

CARROLL: I know!

FINN (actually confused): You know what?!

CARROLL (much quieter): About the affair!

BRIAN (appears pale as a ghost): Uh… (quietly) You do?

CARROLL: Of course I do! (to Brian) I know you better than you know yourself!

FINN (utterly flabbergasted): You mean, no one had to tell you?

CARROLL (exhausted): NO ONE!

FINN (disappointed in Carroll): And you’re still living with this man? No wonder your son walked out on both of you!

BRIAN (to Finn): Watch it, bud! (Brian and Finn glare at each other)

CARROLL (defensive): All I wanted was for us to remain a family! Is that too much to ask for?

FINN (to Carroll): I practically raised you after Dad left, and this is what I get? Some woman who still doesn’t know how to get her life together? (pointing at Brian) This man is worthless!

BRIAN (furious): HEY!

CARROLL (quieter): I thought I could handle it…

FINN (still pointing at Brian): WITH THIS GUY? Are you kidding me?

CARROLL (upset): You’re right, I can’t. I’ll never be tough like you…

BRIAN (confused): What are you saying, Carroll?

CARROLL (very distressed and exhausted): I’m done with this.

BRIAN (extremely worried): What?

CARROLL (calmly): I’m leaving you.

BRIAN (in panic): But… you can’t! We still have guests to serve! PLEASE!

(Carroll makes her final exit out the kitchen door without turning back. Brian starts to make his way after her, when Finn blocks his exit out the door.)

BRIAN (hesitant): I have to go after her.

FINN (with a sly smile): If I’m correct, your guests are still waitin’ on that dessert.

BRIAN: But I can’t work without her, I need her.

FINN (smiling): What you need is an extra set of hands, and that’s exactly what your boy Braden happens to have. Lucky you… (chuckling to himself as he exits the stage through the kitchen door)

(Brian sighs in distress, then walks over to his kitchen phone and reaches for the dial. He hesitates for a solid four seconds, then he dials the number to reach his son.)

BRIAN: Braden? You there? ... Still want that second chance?

END OF PLAY

Little Shelters by Academy Monthly

She triple checked that the branches entirely covered her father’s body. Her hands worked by themselves, adjusting leaves over the vomit-crusted cheek, the glazed eyes, the white, open palms that lay near empty bottles of aspirin and Maker’s Mark. She remained squatted for one last moment, oblivious to her own quivering lips and parched mouth, thinking of what she would tell Jacob. Finally, she stumbled around the corner and through the back door.

            Her mother sat at the head of the breakfast table, quietly eating cereal from a bowl. That her mother had taken the trouble to pour the cereal into the bowl, that she had even found the strength to get out of bed for the third morning in a row, stunned Mary.  Mary stood and watched numbly as her mother ate, while Jacob attempted to pour his own bowl of corn flakes. His tiny hands jerked the box too far over, and the corn flakes cascaded onto the floor.

“I’m sorry, Mary!” he squeaked, turning nervously to his sister. Mary stared back, leaden, unable to chide or fetch the broom. Mother briefly glanced at them before continuing to slowly spoon cereal into her own mouth.

            “Does this mean I can’t stay up to watch the asteroid with Dad?” Jacob mumbled morosely. “Dad told me the asteroid is going to be the most beautiful thing I ever, ever see in my life …ever!”

            “Where is George?” Mother spoke, and stared coolly at her.

            “He went out…to get more rubbing alcohol for the telescope lens,” Mary croaked, in a tone she knew did not sound reassuring.

            “Why didn’t he just get the cleaning brushes from the garage?” Mother asked in abrasive monotone.

            Mary avoided her mother’s gaze, and muttered something about buying groceries.

            Mother said nothing. Mary walked over and began scooping up the corn flakes. Cupping them in her hands, she strode past the kitchen trash can and into her father’s study at the end of the hallway. She dumped the flakes into the bin under the desk and began to scan the papers scattered across the top. Her eyes roamed over the newspaper her father had confiscated from her yesterday before focusing on the words “MARGIN OF ERROR”, scrawled underneath the headline in wobbly pen strokes. Ophelia: The End of Days? read the headline. Frowning, she picked up the newspaper. On the desk beneath lay pages of equations and diagrams, with large sections crossed out in furious black sharpie. She looked back at the paper. Her father had taken it from her, insisting that she stop wasting time on the doomsayers.  For the last three days, he had repeatedly caught her trying to read up on Ophelia, and each time he maintained that he and his team had calculated that Ophelia would not, in fact, hit Earth. Mary felt her blood slowly freeze and a lump begin to weigh at the pit of her stomach.

 She dashed back down the hallway and out the back door to the patio. She halted upon seeing her father’s telescope, and then proceeded to approach it cautiously. She carefully lowered her head to the lens, and then abruptly drew back. She eyed the flagstone beneath her slippers, at the dense forest surrounding their house, at anything but the telescope. She glanced up at the sky.

            There she loomed: wide, stormy gray against the cloudless blue expanse, and unlike the past few days, visible to the naked eye. Suddenly, Mary’s head reeled and pulsed, her breath grew ragged as she drew it into her tightening chest, her eyes prickled with hot tears she fought to dam. And then it poured out. Cold dread and violent sobs shook her slender shoulders as briny water and watery snot conspired to cover every inch of her face. She took one more laborious breath, then turned and reentered the house.
            “Come on! Come with me, Jacob!” she hiccupped, grabbing his hand and yanking him out of his seat. “You too, Mom, hurry up!” She towed him into his bedroom and began darting in and out of the walk-in closet with turtleneck sweaters, mismatched pairs of sneakers, decapitated dinosaur toys.

            “Pack!” she gasped, and turned to her mother. “Pack, mom!”

“Where are we going?” Jacob whimpered, his wide eyes gawking at her blotched and swollen face.

As she fetched Jacob’s suitcase, Mary glanced over at her mother, who had not moved from the doorway. “Come on!” she pleaded. “I can’t argue with you today, Mom.” Mother had seemed made of marble, but now the corner of her mouth quirked up, and her eyes showed mute concern.

“Mary,” she said, stepping forward.

“Go pack, Mom! We’re going into town.” Mother eyes searched Mary’s face for a moment, shook her head almost imperceptibly, and walked out.

“Mom!” Mary called, and placed the Scooby Doo t-shirts she was holding, unfolded, on the bed. She easily caught up to Mother, who ambled down the hallway. “Mom!” Mary took her mother’s limp hand and led her into the kitchen, where she sat her mother back down at the breakfast table. “Mom, we’re going in to town for a few days. I need you to pack.” Mother’s cool gaze made her uncomfortable.

“Mary, what are you running from?” She didn’t sound tired, for once.

“We’re just going in to town, Mom. There’s no reason to be scared.” She glanced at the back door.

 “This has nothing to do with the town.”

Mary gaped at her mother, and then sighed. “Mom… a 900 mile wide asteroid is headed towards Earth…And I’m sorry, but it’s not going to just pass by earth like Dad…promised it would.” She couldn’t stand the sadness on her mother’s face. She looked back at the door.

“I know.”

Mary snapped her head back to address her mother. “How could you know? You don’t turn on the TV, you don’t even leave your room! You wouldn’t have known an asteroid was anywhere near our planet if Jacob didn’t come in and tell you about his day every evening! You don’t even know what snacks Jacob likes in his lunchbox! You don’t know anything!” The door was so close. She kept her eyes locked on handle, but before she could even stand up, Mother had reached across the table and grabbed hold of her shoulder and pushed her into her seat.

She sat, stunned. Mother hadn’t touched her in years.

“The world’s not worth it.” Mother’s calm confidence and energy left Mary speechless.

“Mary,” they heard as Jacob pattered down the hallway and into the kitchen. “Mary.” He stood next to the chair.

            Mary broke free of her mother’s stare, and looked down at his anxious face. Who would comb the knots out of his hair in the morning? Who would bandage his scrapes? How would he learn algebra? Where would he call home, if I’m not here?

            “Mom,” she said, brushing at her stinging cheeks, “I’m going to make some lemonade, like you used to. Would you like some?” She didn’t wait for a response. “And I’m sure we can find the birthday mix tape in the CD rack, though it’s been a while…” Her eyes hurt. She buried her face in her hands. She didn’t move. Minutes later, she heard the back door swing open and shut. She shifted her head so that one eye could see. There was no one outside. She stood and rushed to the door, and halted when she saw her mother. Mother was kneeling on the flagstone, with Jacob in her embrace. She rubbed his back gently; he rested the side of his tiny head on her shoulder. Jacob said something, and Mother squeezed him tighter and sighed. Jacob said something else, and Mother pulled back to look at his face. They talked briefly, and Jacob’s eyes widened at something Mother said. Then Mother took his hand and led him back into the house.

            “Jacob, wait for me!” Mother called as Jacob ran gleefully to the garage. She walked slightly faster.

            They returned from the garage with the cardboard box in which their new refrigerator had arrived a week ago. Jacob pushed, Mother pulled, and when they got to the back door, Mother picked up the box and carried it out the door.

            “Come on Mary, we’re building a house!” Jacob said.

            “We already have a house,” said Mary, gesturing to the walls around them.

            “This is a special house.” Mary followed Jacob out the door, and stopped on the patio while he ran to the middle of the backyard, where Mother was cutting up the box with a pair of scissors. She sank into a wrought iron chair next to the telescope and watched Mother cut out a large door and windows, and then gesture to the woods next to the house.

            “No-” Mary croaked. “No!” They turned and looked at her. Mother got up and walked over to the woods. Mary’s hands grew clammy, something tightened in her throat, her head filled with needles, as her mother began to gather branches from the ground. She padded closer and closer to where dad lay, hidden. She won’t find it, she won’t find it, Mary willed herself to think. Her palms slipped as she tried to grip the iron arms of the chair. And then Mother lifted the right branch.

            Mother only moved the branch a few inches to the side before replacing it over Dad’s chest. Mary sat upright, expectant, frozen. Mother looked over at her calmly, knowingly, with narrowed brown eyes that didn’t question. Mother straightened, her other branches gathered in her arms, and walked over to the patio.

            “Your father will stuck at the supermarket for a while,” she stated, and looked up. Ophelia was now bigger than the sun. Mary numbly watched Mother’s back as she returned to the backyard. She propped the sturdiest branches against the fence that ran along the back end of the property, and then started making walls with the shorter branches. Jacob was going back and forth from the rock garden on the other side of the patio, carrying one large rock at time to the house.

            “What are you doing, Jake?” Mother asked him.

            “Pillows, so we can sleep,” he responded solemnly.

            “That’s a good idea,” Mother said, and helped him place the rocks inside the lean-to.  “Okay, we’re ready.” She took Jacob’s hand and guided him into the house. “Mary,” she called.

            Mary got up and began to walk over. Suddenly, the sun went out. Mary couldn’t breathe. She began to sink to the ground, when Mother put her hands under her armpits and hoisted her up. She led Mary to the house, where the darkness seemed more stifling. Mary looked up, and when the wind blew through her hair, she realized Mother had cut out the roof.

            “I can’t see,” Mary sobbed.

            “Let’s wait. Hold my hand.”

The Nocturne by Academy Monthly

As a heavy rain-cloud prematurely extinguishes the last glint of the setting sun, a gentle drizzle begins to beat against the slate shingles of a small dwelling. A slight tear in the aluminum gutter allows a thin stream of silt to run across the surface of the large bay-window, but its resident does not notice. He is neither handsome nor unattractive, but rather the sort of man the average bystander might mistake for a cardboard cutout if he were to pose on a street corner. With a bent letter opener, he carves a tiny circle into the stained surface of the coffee-table before him. A small terrier sleepily twitches by his bare feet, with its nose wedged underneath a still-damp jacket discarded upon the dark carpet.

He pictures the woman, who is now likely boarding her flight. Her black skirt hugs the top of hers knees, accentuating the outward slope of her thin waist. Her cascade of auburn hair lies across her pressed suit-jacket, and mahogany earrings in the shape of frozen teardrops dangle from her pale lobes. On her birthday, she had nearly crushed their sterling tassels when she unknowingly placed a carton of thick casebooks atop their hiding-place in the cushions of her living-room couch.

He perceives a slight draft migrating across the bare skin of his forearm, and his eyes glance to the antiquated thermostat fixed to the opposite wall. After a moment of hesitation, he rises to his feet, stretches, and steps over the coffee-table to reach the opposite wall. There, he adjusts the faded knob, and a two-note chime sounds from within the module.

Barely audible, it rings with a flippant timbre, like the last remark in a bitter conversation where the two combatants had already forgotten the nature of their original quarrel. A third note begs to be heard – to enter the world alongside its melodious siblings. Was it a third? A fourth? He hums aloud. As if being pulled by a dozen tiny strands of thread, he strides to the dusted-over Wurlitzer wedged in the faded-stucco corner.

 The first note causes a slight rattle from the clutter piled atop the kitchen table. He experiences the sensation of falling, as if having some out-of-body experience from which he could not awake. He is reminded of one morning last winter, when he woke up with a stale taste in the back of his throat and a feeling of dull weightlessness in the pit of his stomach. For days, he endured ceaseless waves of nausea and outbursts of relentless vomiting. A bad stomach bug, his doctor assured him. Yet why did the stagnant taste persist for days after the other symptoms had subsided?

Two more notes resonate throughout the room – a discordant half-step followed by an elegant, perfect-third resolution. Some time has passed since he last attempted composing, but now, the notes seem animated, as if demanding recognition from their eager creator. He plays the way his grandfather played Für Elise time and time again. In retrospect, he wonders if his grandfather could actually play anything besides Für Elise at all. A few measures later, a resigned sigh suggests that his moment of inspiration passed. Oh well.

*          *          *

Around him, a sea of endless picket fences and two-car garages passes beneath the cloudy skies above. More rain. He debates whether she has found a passenger to converse with yet. On her last visit, she found herself discussing global politics with a tall Burmese woman, and on the return trip, she fought to contain her fits of laughter as the well-dressed Egyptian man beside her silently twitched in his sleep. He admires her tendency to unearth hidden pleasure from even the most trivial of circumstances.

In the midst of his reverie, an airy tune drifts onto the radio, luring our hero to prop his head against the car-window for a brief repose. A frayed soccer-ball rolls across the slick road as his thoughts drift to the amber bracelet encircling her slender wrists. He drastically swerves, but, despite his stream of curses, the odd comingling of events has jarred another breath of life into the melody stirring within his distant mind.

Minutes later, he finds himself poised at his piano, his jacket lifelessly crumpled over the faded back of his living-room armchair. He begins with a full-octave leap – a perfectly-orchestrated tour jeté that lands upon the delicate notes of piano’s upper region, followed by a feathery grace-note and melodic pirouette that would startle any absent-minded listeners. From the depths of the Wurlitzer’s darkly-stained spruce soundboard, a steady three-fourths rhythm springs to life, overshadowed by the central melody yet growing in intensity.

*          *          *

That night, he finds himself staring at the woman across the small dining-room table, grinning as the dark stone atop her wedding ring catches the reflection of the rose-scented candle between them. He moves his hand to covers hers, and her wine-stained lips continue to move of their own accord. He counts the tiny imprints on her blouse, each one a mirror image of the pattern beside it. The lips stop moving briefly, and silence fills the room. He nods, unsure. After a short pause, she laughs and grips his hand in both of hers. The lips begin to move once more.

Eventually, the candle’s flame dwindles to a mere spark, and the shadows dancing atop the mantelpiece threaten to plunge the room into unyielding darkness. Still laughing to herself, she rises to her feet and disappears to the bedroom. He clears the faux-China from the table to the countertop, appreciating the brief moment of solitude.

He wipes the discolored tabletop with a tattered dish-towel, each path leaving behind small beads of water. Startlingly, another measure appears in his mind, urging him to give birth to its tentative existence. Her voice softly beckons him to the bedroom, but he grabs a pen instead, only to find its ink cartridge depleted. He reaches for a pencil, but its tip is broken. Finally, his hand grasps an indelible marker, and he releases a measured breath of relief as the melody slowly materializes on the tabletop’s surface. Distantly, her voice grows in intensity, more urgent. He searches for the final chord, stumbles to the Wurlitzer, and plays a triad of notes. No – that wasn’t it. He presses another combination of keys, hears the resolved harmony, and returns to the tabletop.

Now, a more irresistible voice calls him to the piano bench, to let his newest creation unfurl into the moonlit living-space. He obeys; his hands begin to forcefully tread across the ebony-ivory path, interweaving soaring melody-lines and cringing triplets. As the mounting anticipation culminates in an accented five-seventh chord, a growling arpeggio begins to work its way up the keys.

His wrists falter, and the arpeggio dwindles in intensity as it reaches a halted tone. Then, in its reverberating aftermath, a second arpeggio begins a delicate descent from the ethereal grace of the piano’s upper octaves. Each note echoes cautiously, with an air of hushed tension despite steadfast momentum. Finally, a third arpeggio embarks on a dissonant expedition up the piano’s checkerboard highway, terminating in a sharply discordant harmony, desperate for melodious resolution.

*          *          *

Outside, raindrops fall forcefully now – an outright heavenly downpour. The sun hides behind a dark shroud of clouds, newly emerged from its crouched slumber at the edge of the world. A small indentation on the piano bench remains, from where her ring was forcefully slammed down. He’s unsure where the ring is now. Perhaps she took it with her, after all. For once, the tranquility of the room is uninterrupted by shrill telephone-rings, the deep reverberation of slammed doors, and the deliberate cry of shattered glasses.

Seated atop the piano’s splintered bench, he exhales deeply, depriving his body of oxygen before drawing a sharp breath inward at the urge of his fatigued muscles. Before him, a collection of shuffled pages rests precariously along the music rack. With his left hand atop the piano’s frame, the right-hand melody enters a swift plunge. He listens as the rain falls with diminishing intensity, before stopping to scribble another line in the score and beginning anew.

Subtle yet alluring, sarcastic yet quaint, a faded reflection of the original theme mocks the piece’s forceful interlude. Higher-pitched yet identical in melody, the hasty phrase provokes an operatic scene from Gustav III, in which masked conspirators methodically push aside the crowd of costumed guests at the masquerade ball, closing in on the Swedish King. With the monarch’s demise mere instants away, the noblemen share lighthearted gossip in a waltzing sea of feather-clad garbs. Come to your senses, you bastard!

A dizzying trill forebodes a steep upward climb in the right-hand melody. His arachnid digits skitter across the beaten keys, steadily elevating the already-swift tempo. His arms move in sweeping gestures, like those of a conductor possessed by waking nightmares. The piano expels a sigh of despair, a bitter protest, but the melody continues to dominate its overworked strings. The tuning pegs slowly begin to warp, gripped by their polyphonic infection, until the first string snaps.

However, neither he, nor the notes compelling him, show any indication of ceasing their tumultuous joint-performance. The prancing staccatos clutch at his shaken soul, driving him into a state of trembling perspiration. The muscles of his upper back clench and his teeth grind together as the sweet cacophony continues to intensify.

As quickly as it started, however, the music falls triumphantly silent. His body collapses to the floor, where dreamless slumber awaits him.

*          *          *

Troubled days become troubled weeks, and our hero now finds himself in a state of dire consequence. With his back against a chain-link fence, his left hand grips a sheaf of papers closely to his trembling chest. Each laborious breath fills his lungs with frosty air, and a stinging pain has begun to develop in the pit of his stomach.

He doesn’t quite remember how he’s arrived at this particularly monochromatic pit-stop in his life’s journey, as the past few months have passed like a series of crumpled photographs withering to nothingness in a heap of smoldering embers. The first rapidly-deteriorating snapshot: a six-week repossession notice has been stapled to his front door. The next: he’s placing a long-distance call from a sidewalk payphone, letting it ring six times before hanging up. Oddly enough, a state of numbed calmness has descended upon him, a mixture of cool serenity and hypothermic delirium.

Menacing shadows spring from the disheveled sidewalk, closing in on his huddled frame and jeering as the world shrinks around him. His callous right hand closes upon his left arm, and he yearns for the score of notes to disappear from sight. He aches to be free of their insidious clasp, but the misshapen fermatas and eighth notes smudge across his vision like an expanding blot of ink. His eyelids threaten to freeze shut as the shadows inch closer. A fatal trio of notes repeatedly rings in his damaged ear, but elusive liberty is upon him at last. A final wheeze escapes his cracked-apart lips, a fitting coda to his own Requiem.

Hear Tyler's original composition inspired by this story!